LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — For a rather fleeting couple of days, the Los Angeles Kings got to enjoy the view from above, looking down from first place in the Pacific Division, and third place in the Western Conference, at several teams below them in the standings, all vying for the handful of playoff spots still up for grabs.
But after a 4-2 defeat at the hands of the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins on March 24 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Kings’ six-game winning streak came to a grinding halt. Even worse, they fell from third in the West all the way down to eighth.
For the Kings, the good news is that they are just one point behind both the Dallas Stars and the Phoenix Coyotes for the division lead. But the bad news is that they are tied in points with ninth-place San Jose, and tenth place Colorado.
In other words, the Kings remain in a very precarious position in terms of securing an invite to the National Hockey League’s post-season party, and could easily find themselves on the outside looking in at season’s end.
Despite the loss to the Bruins, the Kings have played some of the best hockey in the league since February 25, the first game in which forward Jeff Carter played for the Kings after being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets on February 23.
The Kings have earned a lofty 10-4-0 record since Carter’s arrival. To be sure, finally having a legitimate sniper on their top lines, along with the surprising contributions of rookie forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, has given the Kings balance on their forward lines that they have not had in a long, long time.
“They skate very well,” said San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton, after his team was outplayed by a rather wide margin in a 5-2 decision to the Kings at Staples Center on March 20. “They’re deep up front. With Carter being here now, I think they’re deep. They have a bunch of good forwards.”
Although Thornton did not say it, specifically, the implication seemed clear—that the Kings were not deep, especially on their forward lines, prior to Carter joining the team.
“The chemistry is there, the lines are consistent, everybody’s scoring,” said Kopitar, who has scored seven goals and has contributed seven assists for 14 points in the 14 games since Carter’s arrival. “We’re around the net a lot more than we were, and it’s been paying off.”
“I’ve just tried to come in here, and help out in any way that I could,” said Carter, who has scored six goals and has tallied three assists for nine points in 14 games with the Kings. “The guys have gotten hot, a little bit. They’ve started to put pucks in the net, and we’re playing some pretty good team hockey. It’s been good to see.”
“I’m excited to be a part of it,” added Carter. “It’s a great team, one [in which] everybody is one. We play for each other, and that’s a big thing at this time of the year.”
Although Carter gets most of the credit for helping the Kings turn their season around, don’t forget the two rookies in the trenches.
“[King and Nolan are] 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,” said left wing Dustin Penner.
Indeed, King and Nolan have opened a lot of eyes with their strong forechecking, physical play, energy, and a bit of playmaking ability. But even more important, the addition of Carter, King and Nolan has moved Kings forwards into positions in which they all fit into well, which was not necessarily the case before.
“What [President/General Manager Dean Lombardi] did was fill a hole, not for a lack of personnel that we had, but [Carter] was the perfect fit, for whatever reason,” Penner noted. “As a general manager, he made a really savvy move in getting him.”
“We didn’t really lose anything off the back end, and that’s not a knock on J.J. [defenseman Jack Johnson, who was sent to Columbus, along with a conditional first round draft pick], but based on how we performed,” Penner added. “He was a piece that we didn’t want to give up, but we could afford to, [in order] to get a player like Carter. That was a pretty good trade, a great player going one way, and one coming back. I think we needed that offensive punch more than we needed the defensive stalwart.”
The trade also gave the Kings a bit of a speed boost.
“We’re a faster team with Nolan, King and [defenseman Slava] Voynov all in the lineup,” said head coach Darryl Sutter.
With everyone now in roles they are well-suited for, the players are performing at a higher level, and more consistently, in large part because they are no longer trying to do too much out on the ice.
“We seem to trust each other a lot more on the ice,” said right wing Justin Williams. “We’re doing our own jobs, trusting that other people are going to do theirs. Because of that, we’re reading off each other pretty well, and moving our feet. We’re working together as units out there.”
“Maybe it’s just trusting each other, playing the right way, and doing the right things,” said center Jarret Stoll. “There’s more accountability, too, and it comes from the coaching staff, down. Darryl’s been great with our systems, reading and reacting, and everybody knowing what’s going on.”
“We’re just more consistent, [putting in] sixty-minute efforts,” added Stoll. “We’re playing a solid hockey game, now, instead of spurts, here and there. We’ve got everybody going, we’re playing four lines [throughout] the game, from start to finish. We’re a solid hockey team right now.”
The Kings’ recent surge has allowed Sutter to keep his line combinations intact, a sign of a good team that is coming together—struggling teams, along with young, inexperienced teams, are generally the ones that frequently juggle line combinations.
“Consistency [in line combinations] is really attributed to the players,” Williams explained. “If the players do well, work hard, and get results, then they’re probably going to stay together.”
“Darryl’s done it a few times—when things aren’t going well in a game, he’ll [change the line combinations],” Williams elaborated. “That’s his job, to sense what’s going on out there. [But] we’ve been scoring goals, and we’ve been getting them from every line, so things are, obviously, not going to change.”
Preparation is also a word you hear more often in the Kings dressing room these days.
“Preparation has been a big thing for our team, and that’s one thing Darryl emphasizes,” Williams noted. “[As soon] as a game is [over], we’re preparing for the next game already, and that’s the way it should be.”
Over the years, Sutter has developed a reputation, earned or not, of not being shy about letting his players know what he thinks, good or bad. So far, it appears that he is living up to that reputation with the Kings, but not by being a hothead.
“I like Darryl’s openness, and how up front he is about everything he says,” said Williams. “There’s no mincing words, and sometimes, you don’t like what you hear. But it goes the other way as well. When he likes something he sees, he lets you know.”
“You like hearing when you do [well], you like hearing when you need to improve,” added Williams. “He’s up front, and honest with everybody. We know where we stand with him.”
The Kings begin a four-game road trip tonight in Vancouver, a trip will also take them to Calgary on March 28, Edmonton on March 30, and Minnesota on March 31. Given the incredibly tight playoff race in the West, the Kings will need to earn at least a 3-1-0 record on the trip just to remain in the race.
Despite the heavy pressure brought on by how close the playoff race is, the Kings seem to be confident heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
“I think the competitor comes out more a little bit more late in the season, when games seem to mean a lot more,” Williams noted. “Everybody plays better, and I think where you find out what kind of team you have is in crunch time.”
“We’re doing well right now, but we’ll see what we’re made of [over] the last [seven] games,” Williams added.
“If we’re going to make the playoffs, we’re going to have to be playing our best hockey going into it, and, right now, we are,” said Stoll. “If we can keep that up, we should be all right.”
Tickets for the Kings’ upcoming home games against the Edmonton Oilers (April 2, 7:30 PM – Oilers vs. Kings), and for their final home game of the regular season against the San Jose Sharks (April 5, 2012 – Sharks vs. Kings) as well as for potential playoffs games, are (or will be) 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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