LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — As the National Hockey League enters its final day of the 2011-12 regular season, the playoff teams in the Western and Eastern Conferences have been determined. But even on the last day, there is still something to play for in both conferences, as the winners of the Southeast and Pacific Divisions have yet to be decided, as of this writing.
The Washington Capitals, currently second in the Southeast, and eighth in the Eastern Conference, could win their division, and could switch places in the conference standings with the current division leader, the Florida Panthers.
The Los Angeles Kings could still wrest the Pacific Division crown from the Coyotes, but the scenarios are a bit complicated…
Per Kings Communications guru Jeremy Zager:
If Phoenix wins tonight (regulation, overtime or shootout)…
…they would win the division, and take the third seed. They would have 97 points, and neither the Kings or San Jose Sharks could catch them. The winner of [Saturday’s Kings/Sharks game] would take the seventh seed, and the loser would take the eighth seed.
If Phoenix gets one point (losing in overtime, or shootout)…
…they would have 96 points and 35 [regulation or overtime wins] (ROWs). The Kings could win the division, and take the third seed if they win in regulation or overtime. The Kings would then have 96 points and 35 ROWs (Kings would have the tie-breaker over Phoenix in head-to-head points).
If the Kings win in a shootout…
…Phoenix would win the division (Phoenix would own the ROW tie-breaker 35 to 34). The Kings would take the seventh seed, and San Jose would take the eighth seed. San Jose wouldn’t be able to win the division no matter what (Phoenix would own the tiebreaker in the ROW category). If San Jose wins in this scenario, the Sharks would be seventh and Kings eighth.
If Phoenix loses in regulation tonight...
…they would have 95 points and 35 ROWs. The winner of the Kings/Sharks game would have 96 points, and would be the division winner, taking the third seed. The loser of the Kings/Sharks game (whether in regulation, overtime or shootout) would finish eighth, even if the loser of the Kings/Sharks game gets one point with an overtime or shootout loss because Phoenix would own the tie-breaker in the ROW category.
From a Kings point of view, tossing a huge bucket of icy, cold water on the whole thing is that the Coyotes face the Minnesota Wild tonight, a team that started off the season hotter than Hades, but has been in deep freeze mode in the second half.
In other words, the Coyotes are expected to win easily. Regardless, even though that game will likely be over by the time the Kings and Sharks hit the ice, the Kings cannot assume anything about what might transpire tonight.
“It shows how tough our division is, and how many good teams there are, in the division, the conference, and the league,” said Kings center Jarret Stoll. “It’s going to be fun. You want to play games like that. You want to play games that mean a lot. It brings out all the character we have in this dressing room. Hopefully, it’ll be there on Saturday night.”
The Kings (and Sharks, for that matter), have to be hoping that, with the Coyotes on the road, playing their second game in as many nights, the Wild can surprise everyone and upset the Coyotes.
Stranger things have happened, right?
“It would’ve been nice to, more or less, do it ourselves with a win tonight,” said Kings right wing and team captain Dustin Brown following his team’s 6-5 shootout loss to the Sharks at Staples Center in Los Angeles on April 5. “[But] if we beat San Jose [on Saturday], we have a good chance to win the division.”
“If Phoenix wins two games in a row, they’ve got it,” added Brown. “But our main focus is to try to win the Pacific [Division], and get home ice [advantage]. It comes down to our last game.”
Although it is highly unlikely that the Kings will win the Pacific Division crown, anything is possible. That’s why they play the games. But back on March 3, in this space, I did the math, and the projections, and, speaking of possibilities, the playoffs seemed almost impossible for the Kings to reach.
Back then, I determined that the Kings would need 93 points to qualify for the playoffs, and when they clinched their spot, just prior to their game against the Sharks on April 5, they had…
…drum roll please…
…exactly 93 points.
Of course, the actual number to qualify for the playoffs could be 90, if the Dallas Stars lose tonight, or 92 if the Stars win. But missing by between one and three points? Well, if you’re going to quibble about that, you’ve got way too much time on your hands.
Seriously speaking, 93 or 94 points was the number that most pundits following the Western Conference came up with for points needed to make the playoffs. Back in early March, that total looked unattainable for the Kings, who, despite being a much-improved team with the addition of forward Jeff Carter, along with better-than-expected, rugged forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, were in a deep hole in the standings, especially with Dallas, Phoenix and San Jose all playing better than that Kings at that time.
In order for the Kings to reach 93 points, as of March 3, they needed to go on a complete tear, earning an 11-6-1 record (23 points) over their final 18 games.
Since then, the Kings have shocked just about everyone, going 11-4-2 in 17 of those games, putting together a rather unbelievable string of victories, including a six-game winning streak, adding 24 points to their record.
Those are the numbers the Kings needed to earn an invitation to the NHL’s post-season party, the Stanley Cup Playoffs. But how did they earn those lofty numbers?
Addition Of Carter Changed Kings’ Fortunes
Even after firing head coach Terry Murray on December 12, 2011, and replacing him with Darryl Sutter eight days later, Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi realized that his team was headed for oblivion—missing the playoffs—without adding a scoring forward. As such, he made a blockbuster deal, sending skilled defenseman Jack Johnson, along with a conditional first round draft pick, to the Columbus Blue Jackets, in exchange for Carter.
Carter’s presence in the Kings lineup forced opposing teams to change their defensive coverage, as they could no longer focus their efforts on the top line, centered by Anze Kopitar. Add to that the eye-opening contributions of King and Nolan, who have exceeded expectations by a long shot, and the Kings have balance on all four lines, something they have not had since Wayne Gretzky played for them in the late 80’s through the mid-90’s.
Those additions to the lineup led to another key factor in the Kings’ late-season surge: tweaking their system so that they are more aggressive on the puck.
Indeed, when Sutter was hired, he indicated that wholesale changes to the Kings’ system were not in the cards. But he said that the team would be more aggressive without sacrificing defense.
“We’re going to try to be a more high pressure team, without being a risky team,” Sutter said during the December 20 press conference where he was introduced to the Los Angeles media. “We have the personnel to do that, putting more pressure on pucks.”
“In terms of what Murray put in place, stabilizing this franchise, is immeasurable, and I don’t want to lose the things he taught,” said Lombardi. “It’s about adding to our game. What he put in place, as far as defensively top [six] in the league, that has to stay. We have to add to our game. Part of that is we’re going to make it more difficult on you. That’s going to be a transition.”
“From Day One, [Sutter has] been writing on the board a lot, ‘quick, faster, faster,’” said center Jarret Stoll. “Just making sure we’re quick everywhere, whether it’s moving the puck, moving our feet, on the forecheck, during defensive zone coverage—everything’s got to be quick.”
The transition to the quicker, more aggressive style did not start in earnest until Carter came to town. But Sutter certainly didn’t waste any time in adding the new wrinkles.
“All he’s talking about is being more aggressive, and having more pursuit of the puck,” said Kopitar. “Therefore, we’re getting the puck back a lot quicker, so we’re playing [with] the puck, and creating [scoring] chances, and that’s what you want. If you have the puck, it’s a lot more fun than chasing it, and waiting for the other team to come at you.”
“We’re more aggressive, and that’s all there is to it,” added Kopitar. “We’re skating more, and we’re pursuing the puck a lot more than we did before.”
Not having to face the top defensive pair and the top defensive forward lines on opposing teams on every shift, along with a more aggressive attitude in which he has started to take the puck into the middle of the ice more often, has propelled Kopitar out of his extended slump, with eight goals and 17 assists for 25 points in his last 19 games.
Prior to that, Kopitar struggled through a 17-game goal scoring slump earlier this season, and if you extend that stretch of games just a bit, he scored just once in 21 games.
A product of the balance throughout the forward lines, mentioned earlier in this story, is that the players are now more certain about their roles.
“Over the past couple of months, what’s really come to the forefront is what our jobs are, when we can be aggressive out there, where our area is on the ice, and who our man is,” said right wing Justin Williams. “Because of that, we’re being more aggressive.”
“When we’re caught in between, and when there’s gray areas—we don’t have them, at this point,” added Williams. “We’re aware of what our responsibilities are. You can’t be caught in between.”
“Guys understand their roles better, as a group, and they understand that they’re really important, no matter if they’re playing eight minutes a night, or twenty,” he said. “Like [center Colin] Fraser’s line. They go out there, and have big games for us, big shifts for us. They’re huge, important parts of our team.”
“I think, before, sometimes those guys didn’t feel that way,” he added. “I can’t speak for them, but you can see it, and sense it. Guys understand how they need to play in order for us to win. Everyone’s roles are defined, and that’s very, very important.”
Even with the added quickness and aggressiveness, the Kings have actually improved their defensive play since the coaching change, ranking second in the league in goals against (2.06 goals per game).
“Your system play is always in your head, it’s always there, it should be your staple, so to speak,” Stoll explained. “When you play the game, and you play it at a high level, things should just be instinctive out there, and that’s what they are right now.”
“You can still play the game fast, heavy, hard, and quick, but you still have to have your system [and defensive play] in the back of your head,” Stoll elaborated. “Everyone’s done a great job with that. Everybody knows what’s going on, and where they need to be. You can see that we’re above the puck, above the play. Teams have to come through us way more than they did in the past to get good scoring chances, and create offense against us.”
The Kings are more aggressive in all three zones.
“I think, not that we were slow before, but we’re playing the game at a higher pace, tempo-wise, and speed-wise,” said Stoll. “Some teams just can’t withstand that for a full game. We’ve learned to play that way, and we’ve been pretty consistent of late, so, hopefully, we can keep that rolling.”
“We were a little more passive [before the coaching change],” Kopitar noted. “Now, we’re reading and reacting a lot more, and getting in on the forecheck, even when it might be a time to pull back, we’re still going, and we manage to get the puck back. It’s a good thing. We’ve been playing pretty good hockey.”
“It’s definitely a change,” Kopitar added. “Darryl wants us to be more aggressive, and we are. We play with a lot more energy, and a lot more desperation, I guess. Not that we didn’t do it with Terry, but it shows a lot more right now.”
Defenseman Drew Doughty shared his perspective from the blue line on the adjustments.
“As defensemen, sometimes, if you’re too quick on pucks, rushing out at guys, that’s when they take advantage,” he explained. “That took a little adjusting when [Sutter] first came in, but I think we’ve got it figured out. [As for] the style of play, it’s just being on pucks quicker. [Getting] to your man quicker creates a lot more turnovers, and a lot more breakouts for us.”
“The style we were playing before, we were giving teams a lot more room, and if you’re giving really good players a lot of room, and time with the puck, they’re going to make plays,” he elaborated. “Now that we’re on them quicker, they kind of panic, and make plays they don’t want to make. That creates a turnover. That’s probably the biggest adjustment.”
Sutter’s Firm Hand Is A Factor
Sutter earned a reputation for being rather fiery, maybe even a bit of a hothead, long before his arrival in Los Angeles. But since taking over the Kings, he has not shown that side to the local media.
In fact, Sutter has been the exact opposite when dealing with the media. However, he is, apparently, quite different with his players.
“[I will be] really honest, firm, [and I will work] to get the most out of them,” he emphasized when he was hired. “You hear about overachievers and underachievers. Really, overachieving is getting the most out of yourself, and I think that’s what I can help a lot of guys with. There’s a lot of young guys, who’ve got a lot of growth [ahead of them], and there’s a veteran group we have to push to help our young players to get better.”
So far, it appears that Sutter is living up to those comments.
“Ever since Darryl got here, I think I’ve been playing a lot better,” said Doughty. “He really demands a lot out of me. I can play a great game, but then I make one mistake, and he’s all over me for it. Him just being on me at all times, and expecting the best out of me, pushes me to be at my best, and not mess up.”
Without question, the Kings are responding positively to Sutter and his coaching methods. But one thing that becomes clear from the comments made by Kings players is that while Murray is responsible for the Kings, especially their young players, learning how to play defense, and that you have to play solid defense to win in today’s NHL—he built that foundation—he was no longer the right fit.
Indeed, the players no longer needed a teacher. Rather, they needed a coach with a firmer hand.
“I think it’s just different coaches, different mentalities,” noted left wing Dustin Penner. “With Darryl, it’s just his intensity, not to say that Terry didn’t have intensity, because you have to have it to coach at this level. But the way it shows on the outside with Darryl, and how he wears it on his sleeve—he gets all over everybody. There’s no one who can hide on this team.”
“There’s different ways to lead, there’s different ways to get to the top of a hill, there’s different ways to play defense,” Mitchell stressed. “There’s different ways to do it, and both can be successful.”
“What Darryl’s done is [make] us more up tempo, [and give us] more life,” Mitchell added. “We’re really prepared, and I wouldn’t say that was something that was a strong point of some of the guys around here. That was just what the doctor ordered.”
Is Murray A Bad Coach?
Even before his team began to sag earlier this season, Murray was under fire from fans, many of whom have, and continue to, accuse of him of being a horrid, awful coach.
Under the circumstances, one could easily reach that conclusion. However, that view fails to take into account the fact that he built the Kings’ defensive underpinnings, something that the current team continues to employ—that part of their system is still, primarily, his.
Murray was exactly what the doctor ordered after the 2007-08 season, replacing Marc Crawford, who was little more than a huge hothead and a screamer who simply could not coach young players. Indeed, Murray’s teaching style was perfect at the time. In fact, teaching was the strongest part of his skill set, something anyone who has watched the team practice often enough has witnessed first-hand—he was always at his best on practice ice, teaching his players.
But after three seasons, that teaching, nurturing style became his undoing, as his players failed to execute parts of his game plan, which included taking the puck into the dangerous areas of the ice to create scoring opportunities, as one example—they were not coached to avoid those areas of the ice, or to cycle the puck along the boards endlessly.
But even though his players have denied tuning him out, Murray’s messages were not being received, perhaps because he was not firm enough with them to hold them fully accountable.
One part of the equation that many fail to consider is the fact that Murray never had the piece of the puzzle that the current team has under Sutter: an extra scoring winger with size, strength and speed, like a Jeff Carter. To be sure, Murray was never able to coach a Kings team that had the balance on its forward lines that they have now, even when injured left wing Simon Gagne was in the lineup. As such, no one really knows what he might have done to exploit such an asset, and it is an interesting topic to think about.
Nevertheless, and it is something I mentioned a few years ago when Murray was hired, his record as a head coach indicated that he was one who could only get a team so far, even though he coached a Philadelphia Flyers team that reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1997.
That certainly came to pass here in Los Angeles, where he turned out to be a great teacher, and one who could get them into the playoffs. But he never could get them past the first round of the playoffs, and this season, after a solid start, his team went into quite the nose dive.
In the end, Murray is a solid teaching coach, one who can take a team that is rebuilding with young players, and get them to the next level. But without the advantage of having the personnel needed to reach even higher, Murray was unable to become more than that with the Kings.
Does that make him a bad coach? Hardly. Those claiming that have short memories, are unaware of his contributions and his accomplishments with the Kings, or worse, are refusing to acknowledge them.
Indeed, as the players said, it all boils down to different coaches, different mentalities, and different ways to lead. Add to that the fact that Murray never got that scoring forward that he needed, it is wholly unfair to brand him as a bad coach or a failure. What would be fair to say is that the team needed a firm hand, someone who would give them a kick in the pants, and force them to be accountable, or suffer the consequences.
“I think every team needs a kick in the butt,” said Penner. “It just depends on how the team reacts to it. It’s a different make-up now, right?”
Ultimately, Credit Goes To Lombardi
While the Kings were playing their way out of the playoffs earlier this season, Lombardi was catching a lot of heat, first, for not firing Murray sooner, and second, for not having the guts to make a big trade to bring in the scoring winger his team so desperately needed.
Many went so far as to call for Lombardi to be fired, and you can bet that, if the Kings failed to make the playoffs this season, his head would be on the chopping block.
Under the circumstances, it is very likely that Lombardi has saved his own job.
Although hindsight is always 20/20, Lombardi must be given full credit for making the right decisions at the right times, given that his team has made a near-miraculous comeback, securing a playoff position after that plateau appeared to be well out of reach just a few months ago.
“We have as good a shot as any,” said Mitchell. “There’s not a team we can’t beat. I really do believe that. We’ve got great goaltending, we’ve got good defense, we’re starting to score some goals. We’re big, we’re fast, we’re strong.”
“Sounds pretty good to me, going into the post-season. I’m excited.”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed)
Anze Kopitar (4:38)
Drew Doughty (3:31)
Dustin Penner (1:17)
Willie Mitchell (1:37)
Jarret Stoll (4:28)
Justin Williams (2:32)
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