LOS ANGELES — Don’t look now, but the Los Angeles Kings have put it all together in December, earning a 9-3-0 record this month.
If you listen really carefully, you might even hear some whispers saying that the Kings are starting to look like they just might be a legitimate Stanley Cup contender now, as they are playing even better than they did during their 12-3-0 start this season.
Indeed, the Kings have shored up their defensive zone play in a big way, after an abominable stretch where they lost seven out of eight games as their suddenly porous defense was allowing gift-wrapped goals after blowing defensive coverages, one after another.
Fast forward to this final week of 2010, they are ranked second in the National Hockey League on defense, allowing 2.23 goals per game, through games played on December 28, 2010. Only the Boston Bruins are better, allowing 2.03 goals per game.
“We’ve been stressing team defense—defensemen and forwards working together, taking care of your responsibilities,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi, following a win over the Calgary Flames on December 9 at Staples Center in Los Angeles. “Hopefully, we cut their [scoring] chances down. It seemed to work out well tonight, and the last few nights. Hopefully, we can stay with it.”
Kings forwards are contributing to the defensive effort in a big way.
“Every time you play a line like [Ryan] Getzlaf’s, you want to make sure you don’t give up a whole lot,” center Anze Kopitar said following a 4-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on December 26 at Staples Center.
“It’s the same when you play Detroit, with [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk,” Kopitar added. “Tomorrow, when we play those big guys in San Jose, you want to shut’em down first, and, at the same time, take it to them. Nobody wants to defend all the time. You want to make them defend you as much as you can.”
The improved defensive play by the forwards actually begins in the attacking zone.
“The group of guys did a real good job,” head coach Terry Murray said following the win over the Flames. “I thought there were some great reads, but I’ve got to give credit to that [F3] forward in the offensive zone, our high guy. The defense can only play as well as that man, who is there to support and track back to help out on the breakouts and help with the low coverage.”
“The defenseman and that forward, I thought, were consistent,” Murray added. “They were talking, they were executing well. The defensemen did a good job in front of the net. We blocked a lot of shots ourselves, and played the stick real strong.”
The Kings have also been very strong in front of their net, taking care of the “home plate” area that Murray has been harping on since he arrived in Los Angeles a few years ago.
“You’ve got to play strong in front of your net, and you’ve got to play heavy on the stick, and take away those second opportunities,” he emphasized.
Stellar play in goal by Jonathan Quick, who has posted three shutouts in his last six games, has also been a factor in the Kings’ lofty defensive ranking. Rookie backup netminder Jonathan Bernier, who got off to a slow start this season, has also pitched in with strong play as well.
“Anytime your goaltender—Quick played tonight, but even when Bernier is in there—when your goalie is playing well, he gives the team a whole new sense of confidence,” Scuderi stressed after the win over the Flames. “Even if there’s a breakdown, you just have that feeling that he’s going to make the big save when you need it.”
“They’ve got a couple of guys who are very heavy on their sticks, and, whenever the puck was there, Quick came up with some big stops,” said Murray.
Offensively, the Kings have finally caught fire in December after struggling to score goals during the first two months of the season, scoring 42 goals in twelve games through December 28, an average of 3.50 goals per game.
Even more impressive, in their last eight games, the Kings have averaged four goals per game.
Prior to December, the Kings scored 57 goals in 22 games, an average of 2.69 goals per game, near the bottom of the league’s offensive rankings. But after catching fire this month, they have jumped all the way up to 11th, averaging 2.91 goals per game on the season.
The Kings’ best players are leading the way, with Anze Kopitar scoring seven goals with ten assists for 17 points in December, while Dustin Brown has potted seven goals with twelve assists for 19 points this month.
“It’s one of those things where when we get going, it’s hard to play against us because we’re a pretty good cycling team,” said Kopitar.
“When we keep the puck in the offensive zone for quite a bit, we keep them away from their offense and we’re pressing on their defensemen all the time, making them tired.”
Although Kopitar and Brown are leading the way, the Kings are getting goals from throughout their lineup.
“[President/General Manager] Dean [Lombardi] built a team [with a lot of] depth,” Kopitar noted. “Anybody can score on any given night. That’s what’s going to make us successful.”
Right wing Wayne Simmonds, who plays on the Kings’ third line with Michal Handzus and rookie Kyle Clifford, has been a major contributor to the Kings’ hot December, with four goals and four assists for eight points in the last ten games.
“That was probably his best period of the year, against the Detroit [a 3-2 overtime win on December 4 at Staples Center],” said Murray. “I thought he carried through with that same intensity and same compete attitude out there on every shift tonight [during a 3-2 shootout win over the Edmonton Oilers on December 23 at Staples Center]. When he does that, he’s a real good player for us.”
“[Clifford and Simmonds] really enjoy playing with each other.” Murray noted. “They’re two guys who play a similar style. They’re gritty, they’ve got size, speed. They can play along the boards, they can play a finesse game, they can make some good things happen with puck pursuit they can get with physical play on the defensemen.”
“They came through for us here tonight,” Murray added. “I think that line had a great road trip. The five games were really good, and they followed that up with a big goal [scored by Clifford] to tie it up at the end here tonight.”
Special teams have also played a big role in the Kings’ recent success.
Penalty-killing has been a source of strength all season long, and it continues to be, as the Kings rank fourth overall with an 86.0 percent rating. But it is the sudden rise of their power play that been the bigger factor.
Indeed, the Kings began the season with one of the worst power plays in the league, hovering near the bottom of the rankings until they finally got things sorted out this month, scoring nine power play goals on 45 opportunities with the man advantage, good for a twenty percent rating.
Even better, in their last eight games, the Kings have scored seven power play goals on 26 opportunities, a 26.9 percent rating.
In comparison, the Kings scored just 13 times with the man advantage on 72 power play opportunities prior to December, an 18.1 percent rating.
“I thought there were a lot of good things happening [on the power play],” Murray said after the win over Calgary. “The possession, the offensive zone plays, movement, getting shooting opportunities—we had some great shots.”
“It’s getting pucks to the net, hanging around the crease, driving hard, looking for rebounds—it pays dividends for you,” Murray added.
Prior to December, the Kings power play was known mostly for standing around while passing the puck around the perimeter—they were entirely predictable. But that has changed this month, as the puck and the players are moving around the attacking zone much more, getting the penalty-killers to move out of the passing and shooting lanes and keeping them guessing.
“The way we’ve been going the past few games, everybody has their confidence back,” said Kopitar after the win over Anaheim. “Everybody’s feeling better, and the pucks are not bouncing the wrong way. We are having more movement—on the [power play] goal, I ended up in front of the net [screening Ducks goaltender Jonas Hiller] which I usually don’t do too often.”
But to Murray, it is all about that shot mentality he always emphasizes.
“That’s just shooting the puck, that’s all it is,” he said. “Get [the puck[ up top, get it to your blue line guys. When things are not the way you diagram it, just get it up top, shoot the puck.”
As always, no one is satisfied, even with the power play starting to click.
“The results [on the power play] are definitely there, but I still think we have more to give,” right wing Justin Williams said following the win over the Ducks.” We passed up a lot of shots.”
“We’re still trying get our focus back to not passing it six or seven times before getting a shot,” Williams added. “It’s getting it and thinking shot first. I think we’ll score a lot more power play goals with that mentality.”
That goes right back to that shot mentality thing again.
“We want to be more of a shot mentality team,” Murray stressed. “We’re 22nd or 23rd in the league in shots for, so we really have to get that up. When you start putting pucks to the net, there’s going to be second and third opportunities.”