LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — After the first couple of months of the 2011-12 season, if anyone told you that they expected the Los Angeles Kings to be in first place in the Pacific Division and third in the Western Conference this close to the end of the regular season, they probably would have poked your eye out with their rapidly growing nose.
But now, with just eight games left in the regular season, those liars would be prophets, as the Kings are, in fact, on top of the Pacific Division, and in third place in the West after winning their last six games, and earning a 10-3-0 record over their last 13 games.
As reported in an earlier story, the biggest reason for the Kings’ tremendous surge has been the addition of sniper Jeff Carter, whose presence has given the Kings two, legitimate scoring lines so that opposing teams can no longer key exclusively on center Anze Kopitar’s line.
But almost as significant have been the contributions of rookie wingers Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, who have filled key roles on the forward lines with their skating, physical play, tenacity on the forecheck, and strength on the puck, helping provide balance up front that the Kings have not had since Dean Lombardi took over as President/General Manager, and even long before that.
“They’re big bodies, they’re smart with the puck, they play hard, they play physical, and they’ve filled holes and filled roles that this team needed, and maybe, didn’t realize until they were here,” veteran left wing Dustin Penner stressed.
“We came in here working hard, and we both want to bring energy to the team, so maybe we sparked’em a little bit in our first game here,” said Nolan. “We’re playing down low, and we’re holding the puck [against] the defensemen.”
While King, whose contributions were detailed in this space a couple of weeks ago, has been playing on the left side with center Mike Richards and Carter on the right side, Nolan has seen regular duty on the Kings’ fourth line, with left wing Kyle Clifford, and center Colin Fraser, and has turned some heads with some surprisingly effective play for a 22-year-old kid who was a lowly seventh round draft pick (186th overall, 2009 NHL Entry Draft).
“Right from the first game, [Nolan has] been awesome,” said Fraser, the veteran among his line mates. “He’s really easy to play with. He’s a big, strong guy, he holds onto pucks down low, and it’s hard to take the puck [from] him because he’s so big and strong. He’s the first guy in on the forecheck, and he’s physical.”
“He’s just like Clifford,” added Fraser. “They’re very similar players. They’re both easy to play with, because they do all the dirty work down low, and I just stay high. They do all the tough stuff.”
“[Nolan] handles the puck very well, he generates a lot of low play for that line, and he brings energy,” King noted. “It’s good to see him finding his game out there, too. It’s good to see us contributing, and helping us get better.”
Although both King and Nolan have been major surprises, in terms of their ability to contribute, Nolan is probably the bigger surprise because he was not getting top six minutes with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) this season, and because he is such a late-round draft pick.
But, so far, anyway, Nolan has been a significant upgrade on the Kings’ fourth line, in terms of his effectiveness on the forecheck. He also skates better than anyone expected, even though he will never be considered fast, and his ability to make plays has also been surprising.
“It’s been going pretty good,” said the 6-3, 227-pound native of Garden River, Ontario. “I had a big goal in my second game, and I’ve chipped in a few points here and there, which is pretty good for [playing on the] fourth line.”
One reason Nolan has thrived is because his line has kept things pretty basic.
“Our role is pretty simple: to be physical, provide energy, and play in the offensive zone as much as we can,” Fraser explained. “We’re just doing a good job of getting in on the forecheck, and being very physical. Everyone wants to score goals, but we’re doing the little things to deserve the ice time.”
“[Head coach] Darryl [Sutter] likes to roll four lines, and if the third and fourth lines are going, he just lets us run with it,” Fraser elaborated. “If we’re playing well, we get to play a lot. If we’re not, we don’t play as much, which I think is very fair.”
“We work hard down low, we bring pucks to the net, we try to create energy for the team, and the coach has given us confidence by putting us out there against big lines,” said Nolan. “We’re just working hard, and trying to do whatever it takes to get two points.”
Fourth line players are charged with doing all the dirty work, and do not get the credit that the more skilled players do. But do not make the mistake of thinking their teammates haven’t noticed.
“They’re hard on pucks, they’re strong on pucks, they move their feet,” said center Jarret Stoll. “Nolan’s been great, helping those guys. Fraser’s been great, Clifford’s been great. It’s just hard hockey and, you can tell, come playoff time, a line like that is going to be successful.”
More evidence of the balance up front has been the fact that the Kings are starting to get contributions from their third line as well.
Indeed, Stoll, Penner, and Trevor Lewis also got in on the act during wins against Nashville on March 17, and against San Jose on March 20, with Penner scoring two goals and adding an assist over the two games, while Lewis contributed two assists, and Stoll tallied one assist, while coming up big in the face-off circle.
More on Penner scoring (yes, he really did score two goals), later.
Despite showing up on the scoresheet in those two games, this line is not exactly melting the ice, so more is expected of them in other areas, and they have been getting the job done.
“We’re winning a lot of draws, and getting pucks in deep,” said Penner. “With our speed, and having our first two forwards on the puck, we’re keeping a lot of pucks down in their end, and making them play there.”
“Jarret’s line has to play hard for them to be effective,” said Sutter. “None of them are having what you’d call highly productive offensive seasons, so they’ve got to show up in lots of areas that don’t [necessarily show up] on the scoreboard.”
During the win over Nashville, Penner finished off a two-on-one break, taking a nice pass from Lewis and converting the re-direction at left crease.
“Good for [Penner],” said Sutter. “He moved his feet, shot on the fly.”
Sutter then came up with the line of the night for the Kings, and maybe, for the season.
“He looked like Mark Messier,” Sutter added with a bit of a grin, getting quite the laugh from the local media. “It looked a lot like King’s goal the other night, cutting in, and shooting from the far side. Good play.”
“We’ve been playing together for a little while now, and we’ve been talking a lot about plays we can make, and using our speed,” Lewis noted. “It worked out for us tonight. We all almost passed out in the corner, we were screaming so loud. That was a lot of fun, We just have to keep going.”
“[Our line] has been doing a pretty good job, defensively,” Lewis added. “But it’s always nice when we can chip in.”
On that two-on-one, Penner displayed speed not seen from him this season, but he emphasized that even though his strength and conditioning has improved since last season, his improved play of late is all about his mental game.
“I think it’s just an overall mentality for me,” said Penner. “Instead of being tentative, [I’m just] going out there, and concentrating on always keeping my feet moving.”
Penner’s stronger mental game is more evidence of the impact the Kings’ balance up front is having throughout their lineup.
“The overall mindset of the team‚ we all locked in, simultaneously, when Carter came over,” Penner noted. “It all kind of clicked. It doesn’t matter who you’re with. It’s just whenever it locked in, that’s when it locked in. That’s the wave we’ve been riding since then.”
It’s Nice To Finally Contribute, But…
After the victory over Nashville, Penner said it was nice to contribute with a goal, but expressed deep disappointment that he has been unable to do more.
“I’m not even concerned about the month I haven’t scored in,” he lamented. “It’s all year. Hopefully, this is something that’ll help me at a sub-conscious level.”
He elaborated on that topic after practice on March 23.
“Personally, it’s disappointing because I’ve let myself down,” said Penner, who has scored twenty or more goals four times in his NHL career, and was expected to contribute much more than the seven goals and ten assists for 17 points in 57 games that he has tallied this season. “But, on top of that, you’ve got an organization that [acquired] you, and believed in you, guys who sit beside you in the locker room, and on the bench. There’s certain expectations they have for you, and you want to fulfill those.”
“It’s never easy to let people down, including the fans,” added Penner, who will earn $4.25 million this season.
Given how poorly the 30-year-old native of Winkler, Manitoba has played since joining the Kings in February 2011, it seems very, very unlikely that Penner would garner much interest from other NHL teams when he becomes an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2012. In fact, it would not be a surprise to see him passed over completely by NHL clubs this summer, or, if any team decides to take a chance on him, that he would be forced to accept the league minimum salary.
Despite the fact that his future in the NHL hangs in the balance, Penner remains focused on the here and now.
“Across the board, in anyone’s life, as long as you’re not dwelling on, and focusing on, the negative, and you worry about what you can control, things seem to take care of themselves,” he noted.
Raw Audio Interviews: St. Louis Blues vs. Los Angeles Kings, March 22, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Jarret Stoll (1:05)
Anze Kopitar (2:47)
Jonathan Quick (1:01)
Darryl Sutter (4:48)
Raw Audio Interviews: Los Angeles Kings Practice, March 23, 2012
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Jeff Carter (3:36)
Colin Fraser (3:01)
Dustin Penner (8:02)
Darryl Sutter (3:47)
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming home games against the Boston Bruins (March 24, 6:00 PM – Bruins vs. Kings), the Edmonton Oilers (April 2, 2012 – Oilers vs. Kings) as well as for other games on their schedule, are available from Barry’s Tickets, an official partner of the Los Angeles Kings. Use the code, “Royalty010” to get a 10 percent discount on their “Best Value” tickets.
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