LOS ANGELES — Coming into the 2010-11 National Hockey League season, conventional wisdom said that the Los Angeles Kings would be an improved team that is expected to make the playoffs and, this time, at least get into the second round.
So far, so good, as the Kings are tied in points atop the league-wide standings going into action on November 9, despite having a mostly dysfunctional power play that started near the bottom of the league rankings and is now at 18th, with a less-than-mediocre 14.3 percent rating.
“We want our power play to have more success, more results,” said head coach Terry Murray following his team’s 4-1 victory over the Nashville Predators on November 6. “We had some time, we had some plays, we just didn’t score. We always take a look at it. Maybe we’ll have to fine tune things.”
Murray noted that the schedule is not helping matters.
“Power plays work best when the schedule allows you to play pretty regularly,” he explained. “We’ve been off for four days now [going into their game on November 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning]. You get away from that finesse part of the game sometimes. It becomes a grinding, mucking game.”
“It’ll come, and it’ll become more consistent as we get deeper into the schedule and start to play a more consistent schedule,” he stressed.
Even though the power play still needs work, the Kings are not playing poorly in the offensive zone. But they are not quite where they need to be, ranked 12th in the league, scoring 2.84 goals per game.
Indeed, the Kings’ offense has not been the fuel behind their success to this point in the season. Rather, their defense, penalty-killing and goaltending, have been the primary reasons that they find themselves at the top of the mountain, as they are allowing just 2.00 goals per game (third in the league) and have a 90.7 percent rating in penalty-killing (second in the league) going into action on November 9.
“Penalty-killing has been unbelievable,” said Murray. “It’s been good right from the very start and that’s what you have to have if you’re going to win games in this league.”
“That’s one of the biggest reasons why we’re up in the standings right now,” said backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier. “Our penalty-kill has been unbelievable. The main thing on the penalty-kill is how guys are sacrificing their bodies [to block shots], and I think we’ve been doing that since the beginning of the season.”
It is often said that a team’s best penalty-killer must be their goaltender, and for the Kings, Jonathan Quick, their number one goaltender, has been exactly that—he has been hot enough to melt the ice to start the season, earning an 8-1-0 record with a 1.64 goals-against average (GAA), a .942 save percentage and one shutout in nine games (549 minutes played).
That shutout, a 1-0 win over the Lightning on November 4, came when the two teams were tied atop the league standings.
“When you get a shutout, that’s not bad,” Murray said with a grin. “There were a lot of pucks coming around the net. There might not have been much off the rush, but when they get the puck in deep, everything is going to the net from anywhere in the offensive zone. They made little plays from behind the net, throwing almost a hope pass, hoping that things will connect.”
“That’s a demanding kind of a play for a goaltender, so he had a lot of work here tonight, and he responded,” Murray added. “It was great for him to get the shutout.”
“He’s winning games right now and playing very well. [He’s been] very sharp.”
As for Bernier…he has struggled a bit coming out of the gate while adjusting to life as a backup netminder after being a starter his entire career. But after a couple of starts in which he made a couple of blatant blunders, he responded in his last start, that previously mentioned 4-1 win over Nashville on November 6.
“Bernier was really good,” Murray noted. “He got a lot of pucks coming around in small areas again, like we saw against Tampa Bay. They take pucks to the net, they’re very aggressive, they’re quick, they’re fast. They’ve got a cannon up top with [defenseman Shea] Weber.”
“He was great,” Murray added. “He was under control, composed, square to the puck, he saw the puck. He works hard to find the puck whenever the screen is there, and, at times, he makes it look very easy because of that composure.”
Bernier said that he made some adjustments to his normal routine.
“I’ve been working on [his game] in practice, and I’m a very strict guy on myself,” said Bernier. “I worked on it in practice, I looked at video, just trying to find my game. I guess it showed in my game tonight.”
“When you don’t play a lot, I think it’s different because when you play a lot, you go into [practice and games] and you can work on your game,” added Bernier. “But when you play one game a week, I just have to find a different way. I’ve been watching video and practicing hard all week, and I guess it helped.”
“I don’t think my game was that off. There were just a couple of mistakes. I’ve started feeling better, more [like] myself, and I think it’s going to keep going in that direction.”
Indeed, even though he has made some mistakes, Bernier has solid numbers in four starts (239 minutes played). He is 2-2-0 with a 2.26 GAA and a .922 save percentage.
With numbers like that, it is no wonder that Murray does not seem concerned about Bernier’s early struggles.
“It’s starting to come, and he’s got a whole lot of good games in front of him, and it’ll keep coming,” he said.
Both Bernier and Quick pointed to their teammates as the biggest reason for the team’s early success.
“The team has been awesome,” Bernier said. “Quick has been great in the net so far. We just have to keep rolling with that same mentality.”
“It is a team effort,” Quick said after shutting out the Lightning on November 4. “You just look at the way they played tonight—that’s one of the top offenses in the league, and they didn’t get too many quality scoring chances. They didn’t get much. Our penalty-kill was stingy and they were extremely responsible in our defensive zone.”
Regardless of the strong play by the skaters in front of them, Quick and Bernier must be among the Kings’ best players, night in and night out, for the Kings to be successful, and to this point in the season, they are passing the test.
“We’ve got two goaltenders—I’m really proud of the way they work,” said Murray. “I love the way they work. I’ve been on teams where the goalies just want to get through the practice. These two guys work hard every day. [Kings goaltending coach] Bill Ranford is outstanding with taking the goaltenders out on the ice early with shooters and working on the fundamentals. He reviews video with them and they’re absorbing everything.”
“They have a desire to be great, those two guys, and the only way to be great is to bring the work to it,” added Murray. “They’re bringing their talent out because of it.”