EL SEGUNDO, CA — The Los Angeles Kings have been hard at work over the past couple of days, preparing for the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs against the San Jose Sharks, starting tonight at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
But if the way the Kings ended the season is any indication, they have some issues to correct before the post-season party begins. Otherwise, they’ll likely be booted from the party very, very early.
Indeed, once the Kings clinched a playoff berth on March 21, they went into a bit of a nosedive, earning a poor 4-6-1 record in their last eleven games of the season. Even worse was the fact that they seemed to forget how to play their vaunted defense-based system. As a result, they allowed 3.18 goals per game during that stretch, and in those seven losses (one was a shootout loss), the Kings gave up a whopping 3.71 goals per game.
To put those numbers in perspective, the Kings ended the season ranked third defensively, allowing 2.34 goals per game, while the worst defensive team in the National Hockey League, the Calgary Flames, allowed 3.13 goals per game.
To be sure, something has to change, and fast.
“It was turnovers,” said center Anze Kopitar. “We’ve got to be sharper with the puck and not give them easy rush chances off our mistakes. We’ve got to be better checkers, too.”
“I think the emotional level wasn’t there,” said defenseman Jake Muzzin. “We weren’t invested in the games. We weren’t clean on our breakouts, and there were a lot of defensive zone coverage [breakdown] goals. We just weren’t as sharp as we should’ve been. We weren’t good enough in those areas.”
“You’ve got to be playing playoff hockey before you even get to the playoffs,” said defenseman Alec Martinez. “I think there’s some things that had to be addressed, things we have to get better at. No matter where you are in the season, or even in the playoffs—the third round, or if you’re playing in the [Stanley Cup] Final, you’re constantly trying to get better, so I think there’s some things that we’ve got to shore up.”
The one game in which the Kings played their brand of hockey since March 21 was their 2-1 win over Anaheim on April 7.
“It was a lot of emphasis on good, defensive hockey, as a team,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “All the players and all the leaders in the room were thinking, ‘check hard, play hard, play good defense.’ The goals will come that way. We were able to do that, and that was the only reason we beat’em. We played good defense.”
But can they just flip the switch?
“We’ve done it for so long, we know exactly what to do, how to do it, and how to keep it going,” Doughty stressed. “With a long season—82 games—sometimes you’re going to get away from the things you know how to do well.”
“There’s no concern about that,” said Kopitar. “We just didn’t put together a complete game. The game against Anaheim—that was one of the most complete games in a long time. But the other games, it wasn’t that we were playing poorly. We just weren’t consistent enough, and that’s an easier fix than not playing well. If you take care of the puck, you limit their chances and force mistakes, and we can certainly do that. We have to adjust there, and you have to that on the fly, sometimes. We’re going to have to do that, and we still have a couple of days here.”
Martinez, who could be ready to return from injury in time for Game 1 tonight, pointed to two reasons the Kings can right the ship immediately.
“It’s two-fold,” he said. “One, it’s our style of play, and the other side being our leadership group, the character in this room, and the experience, having gone through it before. That said, we weren’t there last year, so we’ve got a big job ahead of us.”
“We’ve got a lot of character in here, and experience,” Muzzin noted. “If we look at some stuff, and get everyone amped up for the playoffs, and I think everyone will be, we should be OK.”
If the Kings can fix what ails them, that will allow them to generate pressure in the attacking zone.
“When you’re a big, heavy team, and puck possession is a big part of your game, you want to get your forecheck going, and play in the offensive zone,” said left wing Milan Lucic. “That’s something that could build confidence right off the get-go, and that’s something you think about a lot—how you’re going to start the series, personally, and as a team.”
“You don’t underestimate your opponent, ever, in the playoffs,” added Lucic. “You don’t take anything for granted. Right now, we’re all really excited about the challenge that we have to face in the San Jose Sharks, and I think there’s a lot to prove for us, not making the playoffs last year, and even if you look at the series, we dropped the season series to them, 3-2, so there’s lots to play for, a lot to prove, and a lot to get excited about.”
But first things first.
“We’re going to have to change our attitude before the playoffs start, or we’re not going to last long,” Muzzin warned.
Two seasons ago, the Sharks had the Kings on the brink of elimination with a 3-0 series lead before falling apart. The Kings went on to win four straight games to win the series, 4-3, eliminating the Sharks in a devastating, embarrassing fashion.
But as reported by Mark Purdy of the San Jose Mercury News, the Sharks say that they are not thinking about that, and that their focus is solely on their current series against the Kings.
Some of the Kings indicated that they don’t think the Sharks will be focusing on the past.
“That happened two years ago,” said Kopitar. “That’s past us. We both didn’t make the playoffs last year, so both teams had a pretty bad season last year. What happened two years ago doesn’t matter. It’s not going to affect it. What’s going to matter is who’s coming out and being on top of their game.”
Other Kings players had a different take.
“You don’t forget a series like that,” said Muzzin. “They’re probably licking their chops at the chance to get back at us for two years ago. It’s definitely in their minds.”
“I know if this team was up on another team, 3-0, and lost, you’re damned right we’d be motivated to go at’em again and have a chance to beat’em,” added Muzzin.
But Muzzin indicated that even if that Sharks draw added motivation from the way they lost the 2014 series against the Kings, that’s now history.
“Whatever happened in the past—that’s the past,” he noted. “This is now. It’s a new series. We have new players, they have new players. Yeah, we’ve come out on the winning end more often than not over the last [couple of years], but that has nothing to do with anything, going into this series.”
“San Jose is a really good hockey club, and we’re really familiar with each other,” said Martinez. “It’s going to be a battle.”
Even if the Sharks draw extra motivation from their 2014 come-from-ahead loss to the Kings, they must prove that they can overcome their playoff demons before they can be favored against the Kings. Those demons include the fact that Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been less than stellar in the post-season pretty much throughout their careers. Add to that the fact that the Kings have a fairly large advantage in goal, are deeper at the center position, and are stronger defensively, they have to be considered the favorite to win the series, even though the Sharks have the offensive skill to make it a close one.
Kings in seven.
LEAD PHOTO: Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. Photo: David Sheehan/CaliShooterOne Photography.
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