LOS ANGELES — Those who are old enough to remember the CBS television show from the late 1960’s, The Wild Wild West, starring Robert Conrad and Ross Martin, should be able to relate very easily to what’s been going on in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference this season.
Indeed, the The Wild Wild West would be more than an accurate description of how tight the Western Conference standings have been from day one of the 2010-11 season to now, and it is likely that the West will remain as wild as ever right up to the final day of the regular season.
The Los Angeles Kings find themselves smack dab in the middle of the action in The Wild Wild West, in sixth place with 88 points going into action on March 23, six points behind the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks.
But what makes the West so wild is that five teams are behind the fifth-place Chicago Blackhawks (also with 88 points), and just three points separates the fifth place team from the out-of-the-playoffs tenth place club, the Calgary Flames.
The good news for the Kings is that they control their own destiny. If they win their games, they will make the playoffs. Conventional wisdom dictates that they will likely need ten more points to lock up a playoff berth.
Of course, with good news, there is usually some bad news to go along with it, and that is exactly the case for the Kings, who lost right wing Justin Williams on March 21 in a 2-1 shootout win over the Flames.
Williams took a clean hit just after the midpoint of the third period from Calgary defenseman Robyn Regher, suffering a dislocated right shoulder, knocking him out of action for at least three to four weeks.
Williams will undergo rehabilitation, hoping to return in three or four weeks, in time for the playoffs.
“It will be a rehab process now,” Kings head coach Terry Murray told Rich Hammond of LAKingsInsider.com. “Give it a chance and see how it comes around. Obviously, there will have to be a harness worn, as you come back and start to see if it’s going to work or not, and make a decision as to whether he can play or what it will be like after four weeks of rehab.”
Losing Williams, one of the Kings’ best forwards who was often their very best this season, is significant. He scored 22 goals and adding 35 assists for 57 points, ranking second on the team in overall scoring, playing in all 73 games.
“You can have a good hockey club, and you’re still saying, `Gee, we could still use a little bit more on the offensive part of the game,’” Murray noted. “So, I don’t know. We’re just going to have to find a way to get some scoring here from other places.”
Two players came to mind.
“I don’t want to put anybody out there, but I’d like to see [left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky] score more,” Murray told LAKingsInsider.com. “His resume shows that he’s a 20-25-goal scorer. I’d like to see that start to come together.”
“[Right wing Wayne Simmonds]—his numbers are not where they were last year, but the potential is there to put some goals in the net,” Murray added. “So, I think, just other people have to start to chip in, from the forwards right through to the back end.”
But it will take more than Ponikarovsky and Simmonds chipping in with some goals down the stretch. Indeed, the entire team must take their games up to the next level. They must all step up and pick up the slack.
That said, their best players need to step up that much more, but thety have struggled in recent weeks, raising big question marks surrounding their ability to step up their game.
“The goals are hard to come by right now, but if we keep on doing the right things, and keep on getting in those scoring areas, eventually, we’re going to break through, just like we did before,” said center Anze Kopitar, who has had his share of trouble scoring goals this season. “We’ve been in scoring droughts before. You just want to go back to the basics—shooting the puck, and not looking for that extra play. Eventually, they’ll go in.”
The Kings’ more glaring weakness has been their power play, which has been ineffective this season, often inept, ranking in the bottom third of the NHL rankings (20th), with a 16.5 percent rating as of this writing.
To put that in perspective, the Vancouver Canucks own the best power play in the league, clicking at a 24.9 percent rate, while the Kings are just 3.3 percent better than the Edmonton Oilers, owners of the worst power play in the NHL.
“It hasn’t been working,” said Kopitar. “We’ve gone on streaks where we’ve [scored] a few power play goals in consecutive games, and then we cool off again.”
All season long, the Kings have had an awful time just getting their power play set up in the attacking zone. But even if they manage to do that, they usually just move the puck around the perimeter while standing around, making it very, very easy to take away shooting and passing lanes.
That was all too evident during a 4-3 overtime loss to the Dallas Stars at Staples Center on March 7. Indeed, the Kings failed to score on three opportunities with the man advantage, but, even worse, they gave up a shorthanded goal.
“When you give up a shorthanded goal, that’s disappointing,” Murray lamented. “That’s over-handling the puck. That’s not doing the right things at the right time.”
“We had a difficult time getting it set up,” Murray added. “We were trying to force some plays instead of just settling things down, make some easy plays to let everybody get calmed down, get to their positions, and take it from there. [Instead], we were looking for that big play right away in the early part of the game, and you end up chasing the puck back down the ice, and it becomes a frustrating part of the game after you make those decisions.”
Kopitar had a similar view.
“We’ve got to simplify things a little more,” he said. “It seems like we’re trying to find that perfect play instead of keeping it simple, like we did last year. We have definitely have to figure this out and get it going.”
During a 2-1 overtime loss to the Anaheim Ducks at Staples Center on March 19, the Kings had six power play chances and, once again, failed to score of any of them.
But the Kings were not down and out about that.
“We tried to create momentum on the power play, even if we don’t score, to lift the team up,” said Ponikarovsky. “The next shift, maybe we can score [on that]. It’s not like you’re going to score every time on the power play, but we’re definitely trying. We have to put a lot of pucks on the net, get to rebounds, and just stay hungry.”
Ponikarovsky’s improved play in the second half of the season has earned him some time on the second power play unit, which was responsible for the Kings’ lone goal in that game, scored by right wing Dustin Brown less than ten seconds after failing to score on their fifth opportunity with the man advantage.
“That goal that we scored, you can almost count that as a power play goal, because they just got a guy out of the penalty box,” Ponikarovsky stressed. “We were keeping them on their toes, and creating a lot of stuff, but their goalie was playing well, and they blocked a lot of shots, too. We just have to continue with that effort, and more pucks are going to go in.”
“On the power play, we had offensive zone time, we were patient, we tried to let our structure work for us, and we had a shot mentality,” Murray said following that game. “It’ll turn for us.”
After 73 games of near futility, a turn, as Murray put it, is not likely to come this season. But that does not mean they should give up.
“You’ve got to keep going at it,” said Murray. “You keep talking about it in review, and you keep practicing it. We do good things in practice, the stuff we want to get done, all of the time—every game day, we have our power play meeting.”
The Kings have tried to change the look of their power play in recent weeks, moving Kopitar off the half-wall to the top of the slot and putting other players into motion to get the penalty-killers to move with them, opening up shooting and passing lanes.
“I definitely feel comfortable, [moving away from the hall-wall],” said Kopitar. “We just showed a little different look. We’ve been moving the puck around fairly well, it just hasn’t clicked yet.”
Indeed, the power play has not clicked. But Murray saw progress during another failed power play late in his team’s 4-3 shootout victory over the Calgary Flames on March 21.
“The power play that we had [near the end of the second period]—we didn’t score,” Murray explained. “But that was the best power play we’ve had this year. That is exactly what we’ve been talking about, what we need to see on a regular basis. Get pucks to the net, shot mentality, and do it over again.”
“You get the opportunity, you recover pucks, you get it back up top and you shoot again,” Murray elaborated. “That works, that’s the best look I’ve seen from this hockey club this year.”
But on the down side, the Kings failed to score on their best power play of the season, and that does not bode well for their final nine games of the regular season, or the playoffs.
“We need to re-focus, re-adjust, especially on the power play, and I think, maybe just relax a little bit,” Williams emphasized. “We know we’re struggling on the power play, but we need to relax and make plays. We’ve got a lot of guys who are really, really good with the puck, and we need to execute that.”
“It’s the guys out there who are, ultimately, going to do it. There’s ten guys, with some interchangeable parts. There’s two units—we’re all in this together. Nobody’s pointing fingers, nobody’s laying blame. We just, collectively, need to be better. We need to get consistent with it, because, come playoff time, special teams is an extremely important part of the game.”
Too bad Williams won’t be around to lend a hand towards this end for awhile.