EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — One look at the National Hockey League standings will instantly tell you that the Los Angeles Kings are currently in the Western Conference playoff picture. But they will also show that they are just about as close to being out of playoff contention as they are to being in the thick of it.
On January 8, the Kings will play their 41st game of the season (against the New York Rangers, 7:30 PM, Staples Center), the halfway mark, and given their precarious playoff position, the time is now for them to back up their words with action and results, something they’re well aware of.
“We really need to turn it around quickly here,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “We’re not happy with how we’re playing. It’s halfway through the season, and we’re just barely in a playoff spot. We want to have a lot more ground in front of other teams.”
“We show little spurts of how well we can play, but we’re not close to where we need to be,” added Doughty. “We’re not happy with where we are. We’ve got a lot of work to do. The thing is, we know what we have to do. We’ve just got to go out there and do it.”
The captain shared a similar view.
“We’re pretty much at the halfway point of the year,” forward and captain Dustin Brown said after the Kings lost to the Nashville Predators in overtime on January 3, 7-6, at Staples Center. “We’ve been saying that we need to be more consistent. We have to stop talking about being more consistent and be more consistent.”
“Consistency has been a theme all year for us,” a visibly upset Brown added. “But I’ve been saying that for twenty games now. We’ve got to stop talking about doing things and start doing things.”
The Kings took advantage of their four days between games to take stock of where they are, and what lies ahead.
“We looked at some stuff, and had some meetings,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “We looked at the schedule. We need to take advantage of the games at home before the All-Star break.”
“It’s pretty much where we are in our schedule, how it’s going to break down, what we’re going to have to do to get into the playoffs, and get home ice advantage,” added Muzzin.
With a long home stand ahead of them heading into the All-Star break, the Kings know that they have a golden opportunity in front of them.
“Any time you have a home stand, you want to be successful, and get those points when you can,” said defenseman Alec Martinez. “I think there’s eight games between here and the All-Star break, seven of which are at home. We want to put ourselves in a position to be vying for that number one spot in our division, and the home stand is going to be a big part of that.”
So what is it that they have to do?
“In some areas, we’ve got a lot of things to work on,” said center Jarret Stoll. “In other areas, we’re close. We’re not going to win games, 7-6. We’re going to win games, 3-1, 2-1, 3-2. It all comes from the defensive side of things, from our goaltender on out, working together as a five-man group.”
“It’s not anything specific,” added Stoll. “It’s just communication, reads—[there have been] little breakdowns here and there. Teams are good, players are good. They’re going to make you pay, as we do when teams make mistakes against us. It’s just eliminating those little instances where we’re not all on the same page.”
It All Starts In Their Own Zone
As Stoll mentioned, for the Kings, everything, including their offensive attack, begins deep in their defensive zone, 200 feet away from the opposition’s net. But with their defensive zone coverage lacking, their entire game, in all three zones, has suffered.
“It starts in our own end,” said Martinez. “That’s what we pride ourselves on—making quick decisions down low, breaking the other team’s forecheck. There’s a lot of teams in this league, ourselves included, a lot of teams in the West, and in our division, that take pride in their forecheck. It’s a big part of their game. If [we] want to beat those teams, [we] have to make quick decisions and get the puck out of [our] own end so we can do the same thing to them.”
“We have to bear down on our checking, defending on the rush, and in our own zone, limiting chances,” Muzzin emphasized. “We have to do a better job, as a five-man unit, on the defensive side of the puck. If we do that we’ll be OK.”
It’s not just the defensemen singing that tune.
“When we’re a five-man group in our zone, with [goaltenders Jonathan] Quick or [Martin] Jones—a six-man group breaking out of our zone—when we struggle in games, especially in a lot of our first periods, we’re struggling to get the puck out of our zone, to get the puck going north,” said Stoll. “That’s one of the main areas we need to work on, as a group, moving the puck quickly from our goaltender, to our defense, and to our forwards.”
“We’re good at that,” added Stoll. “We know we’re good at that. We just have to do that consistently, and then, you know where we’re going to be playing—in the offensive zone. [But] we’re a little inconsistent that way. We know that. Our road record—we know that. You’re probably not going to make the playoffs if you don’t improve your road record. That said, what’s right in front of us is a huge home stand. [It’s a] huge part of our season to get some points, especially at home, and go from there.”
Fast Starts, Individual Responsibility
Another sore point all season long has been getting off to poor starts.
“I think a lot of it is coming in and being prepared to go in the first period—getting off to a good start in games,” said Muzzin. “The past little bit, we’ve struggled in the first period. It’s important for us to get off on the right foot.”
In order for the team to improve, each player has to be better.
“Everyone’s got to take a focus, individually,” said Martinez. “It’s no secret that everyone in this room can improve, myself included. I think it’s just taking ownership of your own game.”
“Just individually, consistency, from individuals, needs to be better,” said Doughty. “We’ll have guys who are way up here, and they get a few goals, but the next game, they’re not at the same level. We need every single player on our team to be consistently playing well. That starts with our top guys. If our top guys are playing well, the younger guys are going to follow.”
“Everyone just needs to play better—they’re own game. Themselves.”
Although the Kings are well aware of how precarious their playoff position is, there is no sign of panic.
“We know what it takes,” Doughty stressed. “This group has been together for so long, and we go through these spells every year. I think every team in the league does. But we’ve got to get out of this one quickly, get on a roll and win a bunch of games.”
“Guys know their role,” Martinez noted. “Guys have been around each other long enough, they’ve been on this team long enough. Everyone knows what they need to do in order for the team to be successful. It’s just a matter of us doing it.”
Nevertheless, things need to change, in a positive manner, and in a big way, because with the second half of the season already here, time is beginning to run out.
“Obviously, we need to do something different,” said Muzzin. “We’ve been a mediocre team for a couple of months now.”
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