Sprint To The Finish Gives LA Kings Almost No Time To Fix What’s Broken

Los Angeles Kings defenseman Robyn Regehr, shown here during a recent practice at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo, California.
(click above to view larger image)
Photo: David Sheehan/FrozenRoyalty.net
EL SEGUNDO, CA — When we last left the Los Angeles Kings, they had just defeated the Columbus Blue Jackets, 2-1 in overtime, on February 6, at Staples Center.

The win ended a four-game losing streak. But looking at the bigger picture, there were still a lot of things in their game that were broken, as their 6-13-2 record over their last 21 games indicates.

Center Mike Richards hopes that the Olympic break gave the Kings enough of a respite that they will be able to break loose offensively when they return to the ice at Colorado on February 26.

“The focus is scoring goals without giving anything else up,” said Richards. “That’s a tough challenge when you’re one of the better teams in the league in goals against.”

“I think we were a little snake-bit before the break,” added Richards. “Hopefully, this time off will get us some energy and allow us to relax and play some hockey where we’re loose—we play our best when we are loose.”

Even though the Kings were still missing players who were participating in the XXII Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, they returned to practice on February 19, and have been hard at work, trying to address the problems in their game.

“It’s a good opportunity to work on some things,” Richards noted. “Usually, during the season, you don’t have much time to practice, so it’s nice to get an opportunity to work on some things.”

“[We’re working on] everything, more or less,” Richards added. “We’ve had a couple of days of practice. It’s about getting our feet and hands back, and then making sure we’re ready for when the season starts back up.”

Veteran defenseman Robyn Regehr, who is one of the better players to talk to about the nuts and bolts of the game, explained what “everything” meant.

“We had a tough stretch, a period of about six weeks where we didn’t win very many hockey games,” said Regehr. “It was for a variety of different reasons. There’s lots of things that go into a game. Your power play and penalty-kill—the special teams—being good defensively and bearing down offensively.”

“It just seemed like one or two of those were missing in each one of those games, so I think the big thing that we want to think about now, and that we’re trying to work on in practice, is to pull everything together,” added Regher. “We’ve been practicing all the different situations,” he said. “We’ve had some special teams work, some drills where you’re going to the net and trying to bear down offensively, and also working on our own zone, and trying to be better in the neutral zone.”

As has been reported in this space numerous times, the Kings’ offensive woes often start in their own zone, due to poor puck support—the gap between the forwards and defensemen are often too wide, making it easy for the defensive team to break up clearing passes and prevent the Kings from building speed on attack through the neutral zone, which renders their forecheck ineffective.

Regehr confirmed that indeed, the Kings must play better in their own zone, improve their breakouts and generate speed through the neutral zone.

“Talking to the coaches over the break, they want us to be better in the neutral zone,” he said. “We’ve done a fairly decent job of coming out of our zone, but if we can make better plays in the neutral zone, that allows our forwards to carry some speed, and be a bit more dangerous when they’re coming into the zone. Maybe we can generate more chances off the rush, which we haven’t been doing. That’s an element we can add to our game.”

“The neutral zone—that was sometimes happening [gaps between forwards and defensemen were too wide, with forwards too far up ice], whether one group was slow to get back, and the other group was ‘gapped out,’ we like to call it,” he added. “The big thing for us is being together in all three zones. It doesn’t matter what kind of work we’re doing. With the the way teams play, everyone is fairly aggressive on the puck, so you need to have short [gaps] so you can get the puck to other players, and open yourself up.”

“That’s a big part of our game. When we’re really playing well, you see all five guys moving up and back on the ice together. You have lots of communication, and things are crisp.”

Getting back to playing as five-man units is key, and that starts behind a team’s own net on the breakout.

“A lot of it is our breakouts,” said Regehr. “When we do a good job on our breakouts—that’s defensemen going back into position as quickly as possible, having lots of communication, not just between both defensemen, but also the goaltender. If he’s playing the puck, you want to let him know if you’re open, or if you’re not, and what play to make. When we do that, that’s key, because we get back, we get to the puck, and then, we have to move the puck to the open man as soon as possible. The longer you wait, that allows the offensive team to come in and set up their forecheck.”

“A lot of it now is a lot of pressure,” added Regehr. “If you’re moving it from one side of the ice to the other, they pressure over, then the defensemen come down the wall, and really try to squeeze you. But if you can get back to the puck quickly and move it, you can catch those guys before they get into position. When you do that, that’s when you can open things up for yourself.”

As Regher noted, a good breakout allows a team to move up ice as a five-man unit, and to generate a forecheck, along with the sustained pressure in the attacking zone that teams must have in order to score goals.

Sustained pressure in the attacking zone is not something the Kings were known for during their last 21 games.

“There’s a lot of things that go into creating offense, and anyone who’s watching the Olympics has seen it on a little different level,” Regher explained. “It’s been very challenging for a lot of very good players. The ice is a little bit bigger there, and there are other challenges. But the teams that seem to be generating more have sustained pressure. It’s not ‘enter the zone, get your one shot, and they’re going back the other way.’ You have to come in, get a chance, you get the puck back, kind of like rebounding in basketball. You get that puck back, you sustain some pressure. You want to create, hopefully, some confusion among the defensive guys, or maybe some fatigue. That way, you get more breakdowns. That’s what we’re trying to get a little better at.”

Regher also pointed to penalty-killing as another Achilles Heel over the last six weeks.

“The penalty-kill—that’s a lot of small things for us,” he noted. “First of all, the amount of penalties we’ve taken this year has been higher than normal, so that’s been an issue. Also, the movement of the rotation on our penalty-kill—when the puck goes all the way around, from side-to-side, there has to be a certain rotation that goes on, and we haven’t been spot on in that, sometimes.”

“There’s also little things going on with our penalty-kill, like when we get the chance to have the puck on our stick, you’ve got to make sure to clear it hard, and get it down the ice, all the way down the ice,” he added. “Blocking shots. There’s a bunch of very small things that add up to a very good penalty-kill, and we can do a better job on a lot of those things. We can be better at’em, and more consistent.”

That the Kings have a some key aspects of their game that need cleaning up, is likely an understatement. Nevertheless, with the Olympic break over, there is virtually no time left to get their problems fixed.

“We have a lot of games in a short period of time to end the season,” Richards noted. “It’s going to be a sprint to the finish, and it’s the most exciting time to play hockey. We got ourselves into a little bit of a hole, but luckily, we haven’t lost too much ground to the [teams] below us.”

“It’ll be pretty tough to catch the [teams] above us, but all you can do is win games and hope for the best,” Richards added.

“We’ve got 23 games left,” Regehr emphasized. “We don’t have many games left for the regular season, and we really need to ramp things up.”

Raw Audio Interviews

(Extraneous material and dead air have been removed; click on the arrow to listen):

Mike Richards (2:36)

Robyn Regher (6:55)

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