EL SEGUNDO AND LOS ANGELES, CA — After losing right wing Tyler Toffoli to mononucleosis, seeing left wing Tanner Pearson slide, feet first, into the end boards, suffering a fractured fibula, and knowing that the Los Angeles Kings are not playing well in their own zone, many are probably wondering…
But the Kings are not asking that question, at least, not publicly.
“It hurts losing those guys,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “They bring a lot of energy and a lot of offensive ability, but we’ve got other guys who can step up, no problem.”
“I think, if you look at our team, historically, over the last however many years, what’s made us a good team is when guys go down we have guys that, one, come in and play well, and two, our current players elevate their game,” said right wing and captain Dustin Brown. “We have to draw on that.”
Brown indicated that the bonds the players have forged together will give them the strength to persevere.
“I think it’s more that we’ve been through the battles together before,” he noted. “Everybody talks about experience, but what makes our team really good in hard situations is we’ve been in the so-called trenches together, and that goes a lot longer way than guys having experience on other teams with other guys.”
“We’ve been together as a group for a very long time,” he added. “When it gets hard, it’s easier to trust each other.”
Center prospect Nick Shore, who was selected by the Kings in the third round (82nd overall) of the 2011 National Hockey League Entry Draft, is expected to be recalled today, and is also expected to be at the team’s morning skate before they host the Toronto Maple Leafs tonight (7:30 PM PST, Staples Center).
If you are not familiar with Shore, check out LA Kings Center Prospect Nick Shore Doesn’t Stand Out, But That’s A Good Thing, featuring comments from Shore and Kings assistant general manager Rob Blake.
Shore’s addition is yet another change to a lineup that has been in flux from the start of the season, something head coach Darryl Sutter pointed out.
“I’ve said all along that it’s been a challenging year from that personnel standpoint, and we’ll just continue to do it,” he said. “It’s not like we fell off the face of the Earth, or we’re not in a playoff spot, or we’re not fighting for a playoff spot. We are, and we’ve managed to do that to this point, and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”
Defense Still An Issue
In each of their last three games, the Kings have allowed a total of 15 goals (7-6 overtime loss to the Nashville Predators on January 3, 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers on January 8, and a 5-4 shootout loss to the Winnipeg Jets on January 10; shootout goals do not count as goals against).
But wait…it gets worse.
From December 2 to January 11, the Kings allowed four or more goals in a game seven times. In the first two months of the season, they did that five times.
If you do the math, the Kings have allowed four or more goals in 28.6 percent of their games this season—not a small number.
“You can’t give up four goals in a game and expect to win,” Sutter stressed. “Ever.”
Sutter is also well-known for reminding everyone that the NHL is a “3-2 league.” But when you look at the Kings, they’ve allowed three or more goals in twenty games this season. That’s a whopping 47.6 percent of their games.
The result? The Kings are ranked 13th defensively in the NHL, allowing an average of 2.52 goals per game—that’s nearly half-a-goal per game more than last season’s 2.05 goals per game, which put the Kings at the top of the league rankings on defense in 2013-14.
Penalty-killing has also been a sore point for the Kings, who are ranked 25th in the 30-team NHL with a poor 78.5 percent rating. That’s a considerable difference from their 83.1 percent rating (ranked 11th) last season.
As reported in this space on December 20, everything starts in the defensive zone for the Kings. If they are not getting the job done in their own zone, the rest of their game falls apart.
Giving up four goals per game definitely qualifies as not getting the job done.
“Four goals against, yet again, for a team that prides itself on defense, is simply inexcusable,” right wing Justin Williams said after the Kings lost to the Rangers on January 8. “It’s something that we’ve tried to clean up, and that’s something that we have to continue to do, because we’re not going to win games giving up the chances we are.”
“We let guys walk through seams and shoot,” Williams lamented. “On the second goal against, it was my line in our zone for an extended period not getting pucks out.”
“Little things add up to big things in hockey games. We all know this. We need to take more pride in them.”
Sutter was critical of his team’s defensive effort in that loss to the Rangers.
“You have to be able to check,” he noted. “We had some top players tonight who were not in a checking mood.”
“We need to be better checkers, right through our lineup,” he added “You don’t win in this league without checking.”
So what’s going wrong on defense?
“We still have to get better at eliminating Grade A chances and scoring chances on the rush with back pressure and good gaps below and above the play,” Muzzin explained. “We have to get harder on guys in our zone, as a five-[man unit] and break those plays off before they occur.”
As reported earlier, penalty-killing has been a problem for the Kings.
“We seem to be in a funk,” said Williams. “Especially killing penalties, we’re just not getting the clears. It’s not from a lack of trying. Guys are working their tails off, working as hard as they can. But for some reason, throughout the season, sometimes there’s ups and downs in areas of your game, and that’s a down for us now.”
“I think it’s just playing within our structure,” said Brown. “A lot of it is just work when it comes to our penalty-kill. I know we gave up a [power play] goal last night [against Winnipeg]. If that’s the only chance we give up and it goes off of [Trevor Lewis] and into the net—I thought our penalty-kill did a pretty good job last night, even though we gave up one, it’s kind of a fluky goal.”
“It’s about getting back out there and responding the right way, which we did after giving up that first one,” added Brown.
Once the Kings clean up their defensive zone play, the results in the offensive zone should pick up.
“I think our game consists of, one, our [defensive] zone coverage, and then once we have the puck, when we’re really good, we don’t miss passes, and that allows guys like Jeff [Carter] and [Anze Kopitar to be more effective on the attack],” Brown explained. “If we can get out of our zone cleanly, we can give guys opportunities, plays on the rush, you see what happens. [Against the Jets on January 10], I had a chance in the second where I’m [on] a breakaway with speed, or breaking in from the side. It’s all a result of moving the puck out of our zone cleanly. When we do that, the game really translates at the other end.”
But for now, anyway, everything is translating into losses for the Kings, and it could easily get worse before it gets better, given their current circumstances. Nevertheless, the Kings are not looking anywhere else but inward for solutions.
“For us, we’ve got to worry about ourselves,” said Brown. “I think when we play our game, play our style, we’re a really hard team to beat…but we have to get our game in order.”
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