EL SEGUNDO, CA — After stumbling out of the gate with an 0-2-1 start, the Los Angeles Kings finally got into the win column with a 4-2 victory at Phoenix on January 26, a game in which more players seemed to be finding their legs and timing, both of which have been lacking after a seven-month lull due to the National Hockey League lockout.
Indeed, it has been painfully evident across the NHL that those players who played meaningful, competitive hockey during the lockout are playing at a higher level than those who did not. Those who played during the “lull” are generally sharper, they are playing the game at faster, quicker pace, their decision-making is quicker and better, and they are often in better condition.
Those who did not are playing catch-up, often in a big way.
One of those players who is playing catch-up said that things are improving.
“The good news is that every game, I think we’ve improved,” said right wing Justin Williams. “We’ve gotten more crisp with breaking out, which, in turn, has allowed us to spend more time in the offensive zone.”
“For myself, I feel the exact same way,” added Williams. “It just doesn’t come back as quickly as you’d like it to. But you’ve got to be confident that it will come back, and one night, at the end of the game, you’ll say, ‘you know what? I’m back. I feel a lot better.’”
Center Anze Kopitar, who played in Sweden during the lockout, also indicated that things are improving, and he pointed to timing as an example.
“Sometimes, during the first two games, you want to do too much, and you’re too fast,” he explained. “Then you have to stop, and maybe the passes are in your feet. But once you realize that, you can almost come a little slower, and then, when you do get the puck, take off. It makes a big difference.”
With improved timing, Kopitar’s line, with Dustin Brown on left wing and Williams on the right side, was more effective, with Kopitar scoring twice against Phoenix.
“In general, our line was pretty good last night,” said Kopitar. “We were making plays that we normally make. Now we have to build on that, and go from there.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter has noted the improvement. But he has also noticed that some of his players continue to lag behind.
“Brown has been a little bit better,” said Sutter. “Williams has a long ways to go, [forward Jeff] Carter is getting there, [center Mike] Richards has a long ways to go, and whoever plays with those guys is going to play against top guys, so it’s not really anything other than playing to your potential.”
“It’s what’s expected of them,” added Sutter. “We’re not going to beat around with it. The top guys have to be top guys. You’ve seen Kopitar take a step in that direction just because he [was going to]. You know, it’s not easy [for him] because he’s been hurt. You don’t just jump back in, drawing the top guys every night, especially on the road. He’s getting there.”
Perhaps the most glaring aspect of the Kings’ performance in their first four games is how dreadful their power play has been. In fact, they hold the dubious honor of not only being ranked dead last in the NHL’s power play rankings (through games played on January 27), but they are also the only team that has failed to score a power play goal so far this season.
In fact, the Kings are a gruesome zero-for-23 on the power play, including three chances with a two-man advantage (over five minutes of five-on-three play).
As has been seen in recent years while they have the man advantage, the Kings often stand around, passing the puck around the perimeter, and when they finally decide to shoot, penalty-killers have an easy time taking away shooting lanes, easily blocking shots.
At Phoenix, the Kings looked better on the power play, but still failed to score on three power play opportunities, including a five-on-three for the full two minutes in the second period.
“We had a lot of shots last night [on the power play],” Kopitar noted. “We just couldn’t connect on them. There were a couple of blocked shots.”
“We should’ve scored especially with [Phoenix Coyotes center Boyd] Gordon without a stick there, right on top,” Kopitar added about failing to score with the two-man advantage. “That’s a big advantage. But it didn’t come. We didn’t need it last night, but hopefully, the next time, when we need a power play goal, we’ll come through.”
Sutter indicated that they just have to put their heads down and get the job done on the power play.
“We’ve talked about it with them for three days, about more shots, getting to the net, and playing those percentages,” said Sutter. “We were much better at that last night. But it has to be throughout your lineup. It can’t be here and there, hit and miss, because that becomes part of how your team plays.”
“We’re spending a lot of time in the other team’s zone, which means we’re getting there and doing it,” added Sutter. “We still need net presence, and for every player to be consistent there. I thought, during the five-on-three, we were. Kopitar was trying to pick his spots, and he was really close to doing it. That’s what you have to keep doing.”
“There’s not going to be a dramatic change in it. You just have to bear down and score. Carter, Kopitar and Drew [Doughty] are key guys [on the power play]. We’ve got Drew trying to shoot lots, but at the same time, you need that throughout the skill group you’re trying to put out there.”
Clifford Leading The Charge
For a change, Kopitar is not leading the Kings in overall scoring, for the moment, anyway. But you might be surprised who is.
Prior to this season, anyone who guessed rugged, 22-year-old left wing Kyle Clifford, would probably be doing so as a joke. But heading into the fifth game of the season tonight against the Vancouver Canucks (7:30 PM PST, Staples Center), Clifford’s goal and four assists for five points leads the Kings.
Clifford has stood out because of his skating, and his effectiveness on the forecheck, so much so that Sutter promoted him to playing on the second line, replacing Dustin Penner on left wing with Richards and Carter.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some good players, [center Colin] Fraser and [right wing Jordan] Nolan at the beginning, and now, with Richards and Carter,” said Clifford. “I’m just trying to create space for them, and go to the net.”
“Playing with both of those guys, and before, with Nolan and Fraser, we’ve just been working hard and getting opportunities,” added Clifford.
Clifford is even seeing time on the penalty-kill.
“In junior, I played on the penalty-kill a little bit,” he noted. “I enjoy it, I love it. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s always nice to get more ice time, and I think, as my game progresses, I’m going to develop into a strong penalty-killing player. It’s just a matter of working on it, and on other areas I need to improve on.”
“[Clifford has] taken on some more responsibility,” said Kopitar. “We’ve seen him kill penalties for a couple of games now. We haven’t seen that [before]. He’s playing strong, and he’s getting in on the forecheck. That’s all you want, and he’s delivering. Hopefully, he can continue playing like that for us.”
As mentioned previously, those who played meaningful hockey during the lockout have proven that they have an edge over those who did not, at this point in the season, and Clifford is a prime example.
“It was a smart decision to go and play somewhere during the lockout,” said Clifford, who played for the Kings’ ECHL affiliate, the Ontario Reign during the lockout. “[In the ECHL, each team only has] three forward lines, so you’re playing pretty much every other shift. For conditioning, it was helpful.”
While he was playing for the Reign, Clifford said that was “killing him.”
“[Minnesota Wild forward Devin] Setoguchi [and I] were down there, in the trainer’s room [after games], with ice bags on our legs,” Clifford noted. “It was tough. It was an adjustment, but I think the players who did play [during the lockout] benefitted from it.”
It appears that Clifford will be playing on the second line for awhile, at least until other forwards catch up to him, in terms of conditioning, timing, pace of the game, and the like.
“If he performs, keeps his energy level, tries to play to the level of the guys he’s playing against—he’s doing that right now,” said Sutter. “He created again last night. That’s his game. I don’t look at him like he’s supposed to score every game, but I think he can contribute to the top guys in terms of his energy, his intensity, and, quite honestly, pull some guys into [that], or knock some other guys out of it.”
Defenseman Willie Mitchell, who is recovering from knee surgery, did not participate in Sunday’s optional skate.
When asked if Mitchell had suffered a setback, Sutter said no.
“He skated 75 minutes yesterday,” Sutter noted. “It’s kind of ‘play as we go.’”
Raw Audio Interviews
(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):
Justin Williams (4:35)
Darryl Sutter (5:11)
Anze Kopitar (7:30)
Kyle Clifford (2:24)
Game Highlights, Los Angeles Kings vs. Phoenix Coyotes, January 26, 2013
Kyle Clifford’s Day With The Stanley Cup
Used with permission..
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