Los Angeles Kings: Fixing The Defense Must Be The Top Priority

LOS ANGELES — Despite ending their three-game losing skid with a 4-3 shootout victory at Boston on November 20, the Los Angeles Kings are not firing on all cylinders as they head into the Great White North to face the Ottawa Senators on November 22 and the Montreal Canadiens on November 24.

In recent games, the Kings have been plagued a less-than-anemic power play that has sunk to 24th in the thirty-team National Hockey League through games played on November 21 (14.5 percent rating), and has scored just once in their last 15 power play opportunities.

Even worse have been the costly turnovers and poor defensive zone coverage, including their penalty-killing, which has suddenly looked more than a little disorganized while allowing five power play goals in their last 18 times shorthanded, a very poor 72.2 percent rating.

Their three-game slide began with a 6-3 loss at San Jose on November 15, a game in which the Kings coughed up the puck often and paid little attention to their defensive responsibilities. That left backup goaltender Jonathan Bernier to fend for himself, facing one scoring chance after another from right in front of his net.

The turnovers and defensive woes continued against the Columbus Blue Jackets on November 17, a 5-3 loss at Staples Center in Los Angeles that ended the Kings’ home winning streak to start the season at a franchise record eight games.

The Kings then hit the road, losing at Buffalo, 4-2, on November 19, a game that saw the Kings once again allow their opposition way too many high-quality scoring chances on Bernier.

After jumping out to a 3-0 lead at Boston on November 20, more careless turnovers and weak defensive play let the Bruins back in the game with a goal in the second period and two in the third. It took a Herculean effort by goaltender Jonathan Quick for the Kings to get the through overtime and into the shootout.

Although the Kings were not locked up by the Boston Police Department and charged with grand theft after that game, they stole that win.

For the Kings to get back to their winning ways, their power play needs a lot of work, and that is a tremendous understatement. But the shoddy defensive coverage is a much higher priority.

To illustrate, the Kings have allowed 17 goals in their last four games, an average of 4.25 goals-per game. Prior to that, when the Kings were paying closer attention to their defensive assignments, they allowed just 28 goals in 15 games.

That’s just 1.87 goals-per game, a difference of more than two goals per game.

To be sure, the Kings have been guilty of blown coverages and blatant miscues in their own zone in their last four games, giving up easy goals, mostly on chances from below and inside the face-off dots, and they are coming in bunches.

“We don’t like the way we’ve played here now the last couple of games,” head coach Terry Murray said after his team’s loss to Columbus. “Tonight, a couple of those goals were really easy for them, and that’s really out of character.”

“When we have a one-goal lead in the third period, that’s something that we’ve been able to shut down and do the right thing the rest of the game to maintain that lead and win the game,” Murray added. “They made it look easy there on a couple of those goals tonight. Their first goal and their third goal, I thought, were [the result of defensive] breakdowns, where it was very easy for them. We lost our coverage. We’ll have to tighten things up.”

“It was the plays down low, below the dots and the circles, on a couple of those goals that we were just a little too far away from our coverage. We didn’t close fast enough, or we were not aware of who we needed to pick up off that rotation off the half-board.”

The defensive zone problems have been glaringly evident throughout the Kings’ last four games. Notably missing from their lineup are defensive defenseman Willie Mitchell and forward Alexei Ponikarovsky, who are both out with injuries. Nevertheless, the loss of two of their defensive stalwarts does not explain the numerous breakdowns in their own zone.

Indeed, veteran defenseman Matt Greene said that the problems are rooted in the Kings’ mental game breaking down.

“I can’t speak for the other guys, but I look at what we’ve been doing all year with our defensive corps—I think the effort is there, the commitment, playing the system is there,” Greene noted. “I think it’s just mental lapses right now. I mean, I’ve been on the ice for five goals against in the last two games. That’s not a good stat if you want to win hockey games.”

“I know it’s been mental,” Greene stressed. “[Those problems have] got to get cleared up if we want to have success.”

Murray emphasized that the Kings need to focus on their system and attitude.

“You just want to keep playing,” he said. “Don’t get away from the structure. Don’t get away from the attitude you’ve been showing. I think good things will happen whenever you approach the game that way.”

“Everybody’s going to have to be ready to do their job the right way,” he added.

Despite the downturn, the Kings are keeping things in perspective.

“We need to focus on our game, just the way we’ve been playing it right from the get-go,” center Anze Kopitar said after the loss to the Blue Jackets. “Everybody knows the system, everybody knows what to do, and what made us successful in the beginning. [We have] to get back to that, simplify a few things, and score some goals. That should be it.”

“This stuff happens during the year. I think if anyone told us we’d start the season 12-5, I think everyone would be pretty happy about it.”