LOS ANGELES — Although the Los Angeles Kings have been rather inconsistent after a 12-3-0 start, they are now 6-3-1 in their last ten games, as of this writing.
The biggest reasons have been the superb play of goaltender Jonathan Quick and the more-than-solid play of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams, who have combined for 13 goals and 21 assists for 34 points in the last ten games.
Kopitar has caught fire, scoring six goals and adding seven assists, while Williams has tallied three goals with four assists. But the big gun over the last ten games has been Brown, who has scored four goals with eleven assists.
Defenseman Drew Doughty, who has struggled offensively this season, also appears to be getting on track, having scored a goal with seven assists during that span.
But even with their best players producing, the role players must chip in here and there with a timely goal, and the Kings have been getting just that lately.
Right wing Wayne Simmonds has been heating up over the last ten games, scoring three goals and adding three assists, while rookie left wing Kyle Clifford has potted two goals with two assists for four points.
Clifford, 19, made the Kings roster out of training camp after getting called up from the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League at the end of the 2009-10 season to join the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League (Kings’ primary minor league affiliate) for their post-season run to the Eastern Conference Finals, recording two assists with twelve penalty minutes.
“I just stuck to my game, mixed it up a little bit, threw some checks and tried to make a little bit of room for [his line mates],” Clifford said. “It was a great group of guys. We really showed well the whole playoff run there — we were the underdogs for most of it.
“I felt like we put in a great effort against the Hershey Bears,” Clifford added. “It was a little disappointing, the way it ended, but I thought we really pulled through.”
The 6-foot-2-inch, 208-pound native of Ayr, Ontario was in and out of the Kings lineup for the first couple of months of the 2010-11 season, and he was on the bubble — he could have easily been sent back to Barrie to finish the year in Canadian junior hockey. But he has gradually earned the trust of Kings head coach Terry Murray and been in the lineup more regularly in recent weeks.
“Clifford is a guy who just knows how to get things done at a critical time,” Murray said. “I didn’t play him a lot, but he’s 19 years old and has a great hockey career ahead of him.”
The Kings’ second-round pick (35th overall) in the 2009 National Hockey League Entry Draft got the thrill of his life on Dec. 9 when the Kings defeated the Calgary Flames, 2-1, at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Clifford only got 5:18 of ice time in that game, but he made the most of those brief minutes when he scored his first NHL goal at 12:08 of the first period when a hard pass from Simmonds deflected into the net off of Clifford’s skate.
“Hopefully they don’t have video of it so I can describe it a little bit better,” Clifford joked. “It was an ugly goal, but it was good to get the first one off my back, and it even makes it better that we won tonight.”
“Clifford is a good teammate, a good guy around the locker room,” said veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi. “He’s real quiet, he [keeps] to himself, so it was nice to see him pretty pumped up there. It’s something he’ll remember for the rest of his career.”
“I thought he had [his first NHL goal] a couple of other times,” Murray said. “For him to get it tonight, I’m real happy for him.”
Clifford, who had been playing on the Kings’ fourth line all season, was moved up to the third line on Dec. 18 at Nashville, and it did not take long for him to take advantage of the added ice time.
The next night in Chicago, he set a career-high with 14:51 of ice time in a 3-2 loss. But Clifford, who is known more for his fists than soft hands, scored a highlight-reel goal.
At 1:34 of the second period, he got the puck on the left wing. On the rush, he moved through the left circle. At the bottom of the left circle, he deked Chicago goaltender Corey Crawford, moved the puck to his backhand and slid the puck into the gaping net.
It was a goal-scorer’s goal by a player who is nothing close to a sniper.
“That was a very nice goal,” Murray told LAKingsInsider.com. “That was a real power-forward play. He took it right to the hole. That’s a brave thing to do, and then nice hands as he got to the net. That was a good effort.”
Clifford is the rugged, gritty, physical forward that Murray likes.
“He’s physical, he’s hard, he plays with a lot of grit in his game, he’s very brave to take pucks to the net and to play in those hard areas — the dots to the boards, those areas where a lot of guys are nervous going into,” Murray noted. “He welcomes that challenge. His progression keeps taking steps in the right direction every game.”
“He’s a young kid, in terms of age, but he’s a man from a physical standpoint,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “He’s a big boy and really strong. His fights speak for themselves, but he’s starting to get a little more confidence driving to the net and making plays off the rush.”
“He’s going to be a good player for the LA Kings for a long time,” Murray said.