EL SEGUNDO, CA — Outside of the first and second periods in Chicago on February 17, the Los Angeles Kings have started to put things together after a rough start to the abbreviated 2013 season.
Prior to February 10, the Kings were struggling badly, earning just a 3-4-2 record after nine games. But after that, they are 4-2-0, with a loss at Detroit, a game in which they arguably played their best hockey this season, and the aforementioned loss at Chicago, in which the Kings were missing in action until the third period, but almost came all the way back from a 3-0 deficit.
Head coach Darryl Sutter pointed out that his team’s progress has been a bit slow.
“I knew, coming [into the season], that opening [day, a 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at Staples Center on January 19] wasn’t going to be about the game,” said Sutter. “It was going to be about the ceremony, and that held true. Then, we went to Colorado, and played pretty well, but made a couple of mistakes in the third period. That set the [tone] for where we are.”
So what’s changed since that heartbreaking loss at Detroit almost two weeks ago?
“Everyone is realizing that we can’t just go through the motions,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “We’re not going to win that way. We’ve got to work at it. Just because we were a good team in the playoffs last year doesn’t mean that things are going to come easily.”
“Guys finally stepped up to the plate, and picked up their own games,” added Doughty. “That’s been the big difference.”
Cleaning up their defensive zone coverage has also been key.
“It starts in our own zone, being hard defenders, creating turnovers, being quick on the puck, being quick to [get to opposing players], making that first breakout pass, getting [the puck] through the neutral zone and into their zone—that’s when we’re at our best,” Doughty explained. “When we’re doing all those things, we have so many offensively skilled guys in this room that, when we get it into their zone, they can take it from there.”
“All we have to do [are] those few things in our defensive zone to get the puck out of there, and get it [into the attacking zone],” Doughty elaborated. “We should be fine from there.”
Consistency Is The Issue For Muzzin
Although his play has not reached the desired level of consistency, defenseman Jake Muzzin appears to be settling into his role, and shaking off whatever early season jitters he may have had.
Prior to their win over the Columbus Blue Jackets at Staples Center on February 15, Sutter issued a challenge to Muzzin, who sat out the previous two games as a healthy scratch.
“We’ll put Muzzin in for sure [against Columbus],” Sutter on February 14. “We took Muzzin out because he was horse [expletive deleted]—road apples, in Anaheim [on February 2].”
“Most guys [who] play like that in one NHL game, they’re doing time again [heading back to the minors],” added Sutter. “He’s got to get his foot on the right pedal if he wants to play again. He’s going to play tomorrow, and he’d better have it on the right pedal, or somebody else gets the chance.”
As it turns out, Sutter’s comments never reached Muzzin, but perhaps they didn’t have to.
“I just went out and played hard,” said Muzzin. “I thought I played well this week.”
As stated earlier, consistency is the root issue for Muzzin, at this point, and that is often the challenge for a young player at the National Hockey League level.
“It’s so hard to come to the rink everyday, and get better,” said Muzzin. “Every game, playing hard, the same way [every time]. It wears on you, physically, so consistency is always huge.”
“[Kings coaches have asked Muzzin to] just to continue playing hard, [being] hard on guys, physical down low, heavy sticks, heavy battles, hard plays, continuing to play with confidence, and trust your reads,” added Muzzin. “[He needs] to be more physical. When you’re engaged physically, those little [mistakes] don’t happen. You’re not reaching for pucks. You’re taking the body, and that goal [scored by Anaheim Ducks forward Nick Bonino to open the scoring in a 7-4 rout of the Kings at Honda Center on February 2] doesn’t happen.”
For Muzzin, as it is for just about all young players, developing that consistency will be a work-in-progress for the foreseeable future.
“It’s getting comfortable, having a good feel, knowing what I have to do to stay in the lineup, and what I need to do to get better, and work on things, listen to [assistant coach John Stevens] and Sutter,” Muzzin noted. “Being physical, and being hard on bodies, builds confidence, and [helps you develop an identity, as a player].”
Lewis Is Getting Offensive
One of the reasons for the Kings’ recent success has been the play of forward Trevor Lewis, who has a goal and two assists in the last two games, and his goal at Calgary on February 20 proved to be the game-winner.
Prior to those games, Lewis has been held off the scoresheet.
“I think I’ve been getting chances,” Lewis emphasized. “They haven’t been going in, but the past two games, I got a couple of bounces and they went in for a change. It’s nice to get the confidence up a little bit. With me, that’s a big thing. The more confident I am with the puck, the more I’m able to do.”
Lewis’ play earned him a bit of a promotion against Calgary, as he moved up to left wing on the second line with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards.
“They’re great players, so when you get a chance to play with them, you’ve got to capitalize on your opportunities,” he said. “I scored in the [last] game with them, so that’s good.”
Lewis indicated that he enjoyed playing on left wing, but noted that playing on his off wing has its advantages and disadvantages.
“Playing on left wing, you get more options, offensively, but it’s a little tougher defensively,” he noted. “That’s something I need to work on.”
Campbell Knows His Role
While Muzzin is in the lineup, still trying to develop a level of consistency, young blue liner Andrew Campbell is not playing. But that is not due to poor play.
The 25-year-old, 6-3, 207-pound native of Caledonia, Ontario is serving as the seventh defenseman while Matt Greene, Willie Mitchell, and Alec Martinez (more on Martinez in a bit) recover from their injuries.
Campbell, who was selected by the Kings in the third round (74th overall) of the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, understands the situation.
“I can’t worry about not playing now,” he said. “I’ve just got to practice, and get better. I’m here in case something happens and they need me. I’ve just got to practice well so that I’m ready if the call comes.”
To that end, Campbell is doing what is expected of him, working hard in practice, and absorbing what he can from the veteran players and the coaching staff, who have discussed with him what they want him to focus on.
“Make the hard first pass, be tough to play against, bring the compete level and grittiness up, be mean, and work hard,” Campbell said about that laundry list.
Changing Positions To Stay In The Lineup?
Sutter took note of the fact that some players have had to play in different positions from what they might be accustomed to this season, for various reasons.
But one reason stands out.
“Some guys are fighting to stay in the lineup by having to play other positions,” Sutter indicated. “Jeff Carter moved back to wing to play in a different situation.”
As noted earlier, Lewis moved over to the left side in the team’s last two games.
“Lewis is saying that [he likes playing on the left side] because he scored last night, and he had two assists [the other night],” said Sutter. “He didn’t play left wing until halfway through the Edmonton game. [Prior to that], I’ve never played him on left wing, and I had never played [Dwight] King on right wing. [Jordan] Nolan, I’ve played on left wing and right wing.”
Speaking of King, after mentioning moving him to the right side, Sutter quickly shifted gears, trying to light a fire under his players who have yet to score a goal this season.
“I think Dustin Penner, Dwight King, Simon Gagne, Brad Richardson—who else hasn’t scored a goal this year? We would have a little better record if one of them, or all of them [had] one more goal [on the season],” Sutter stressed. “We’re almost 33 percent into the [season]. I don’t think having no goals is beneficial—I’m wondering if the player is playing up to his capabilities or not.”
But when asked if King would be a healthy scratch due to his lack of production, Sutter indicated that scoring is not the determining factor.
“Guys [who] work, play,” he noted. “Guys [who] don’t, don’t.”
Martinez skated after the Kings practice session ended on Friday, and is getting closer to returning to action, but that is still off in the distance.
“I’m not really sure, but I think I’m getting closer,” said Martinez. “I’m progressing the way they want me to and I’m working hard. I’m doing everything I can to get back as soon as possible.”
“He’s getting closer, but until he has contact, and skates with the team—he’s pushing for that,” said Sutter. “We’re home for a whole week, so at least we get a chance to see him every day. We’ll kind of go from there.”
Frozen Royalty Video via YouTube – Interviews From Los Angeles Kings Practice, February 22, 2013
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