LOS ANGELES — Although the Los Angeles Kings were not lighting the National Hockey League on fire by scoring goals in bunches before losing their top two scorers, the task at hand has become far more difficult.
After losing right wing Justin Williams to a dislocated right shoulder on March 21, and then losing star center Anze Kopitar to a high ankle sprain and torn ligaments on March 26, the Kings have been forced to do without players who combined for 47 goals and 130 points this season.
Further, Kopitar is the Kings’ best defensive forward, one who should receive serious consideration for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL’s best defensive forward. Indeed, Kopitar plays in all situations, so the Kings are missing a lot more than offense with him sidelined until next season.
That the Kings have a couple of big holes in their lineup is an understatement. Yet they must press on.
“No one guy can replace a Kopitar,” said left wing Ryan Smyth. “Everyone has to, collectively, come together and regroup. Everybody has to fill a good role, and it’s all about opportunity.”
“He’s our best player,” said right wing and team captain Dustin Brown. “We’ve got to find a way, either way. Injuries happen during the year. You don’t want to have your best player go down, but if that’s the case, we need to shoulder the responsibility collectively and find a way, because no other team is going to feel sorry for us.”
“Maybe we’ll find out what we’re made of, with our top two scorers out,” added Brown. “You know, that’s part of an 82-game schedule. At the end of the day, we’ve got to find a way to keep going as a team.”
As the players noted, the Kings must find a way to do without.
“I’ve been through these kinds of things before with injuries,” said head coach Terry Murray. “It’s an opportunity. Other guys step up. The character of the team needs to step up, everybody has to do the right things. You’ve got the trust your structure, your system, and give it the best opportunity you can, as a group, to finish games off and play the right way.”
“You’re going to have to rely on your team play, absolutely, and the checking part is what we rally around all the time,” added Murray. “We’ll have to look at that a little bit more. We’ll have a smaller margin of error when you’re managing the puck through the middle of the ice. You’ve got to make absolutely sure. You can’t have those counters coming back at you as quickly now.”
Their games since Kopitar went down have exemplified what the Kings can and cannot do in order to, not only qualify for the playoffs, but hope to enjoy any post-season success whatsoever.
Facing the Vancouver Canucks in Vancouver on March 31, the Kings tried to do too much offensively. They got away from their system and lost, 3-1, and the score made the game look a bit closer than it really was.
For the Kings to succeed, they need to keep things simple.
“Nothing fancy,” said center Jarret Stoll. “Just get the puck moving north, get it in, get in on the cycle, get on the forecheck, create some shots, and some second chance opportunities.”
“Our defensive game, our checking game, it was real good, it’s real tight right now,” Stoll added following a 3-1 win over Dallas on April 2. “Our goaltenders are making key saves when they have to. We just have to keep going like that. It’s going to be a battle every game. We just have to be prepared for it and focused.”
“Guys have been stepping up, we’re playing well without [Kopitar and Williams],” said right wing Wayne Simmonds. “It would be nice to have them back, but we can’t do that right now.”
The Kings will also need to manufacture goals any way they can, like two goals scored against Dallas, ones that were either deflected in off a Stars player or inadvertently knocked into the net.
“The goal that [defenseman Matt] Greene scores off that face-off [deflecting off of Stars forward Alex Goligoski], [Simmonds] holds onto that puck, he showed a lot of dig-in, he used his size and strength, and then there was his awareness on the ice to make those kinds of plays,” said Murray. “As a result of that play, and just the way he was starting to get going in the second half of the game, that’s what we need.”
“It doesn’t matter how we do it, as long as they we put the pucks in the net somehow, whether it’s off them, off our shin pads, or our faces, whatever,” Stoll stressed. “Getting two points is all that matters at this time of the year. I don’t care what anybody says, as long as we get the win.”
“You’re going to have to score those dirty, gritty goals,” said Simmonds. “That’s the way it’s going to be in the playoffs, and that’s the way it is now.”
But they will still need more up front if they expect to have any chance in the first round of the playoffs.
“We could do more, for sure,” Stoll admitted. “Once we get some more power plays, we need to get that area of our game going, get that confidence going. That could be a big source of confidence.”
“Offensively, just creating more shots,” Stoll added. “Our shots could definitely be up a bit, and move from there.”
Even more important, without Kopitar and Williams, the Kings must step things up in the defensive zone even more, even though defense has been a strength for the Kings all season.
Indeed, outside of their recent loss at Vancouver, the Kings have been solid in their own end.
“The defense was very good here,” Murray said about his team’s effort against the Stars on April 2. “I really liked the way the group played. Jack Johnson moving over to the right side, I thought he made that adjustment seamlessly. He was really good here today. He and [Willie] Mitchell paired up, and [Drew] Doughty and [Rob] Scuderi were the four guys that matched up against up their top guys, and they did an incredible job of taking away time and space.”
“Defensively, we’re real sound,” Stoll noted. “Checking-wise, we’re good. There are just little areas of our game where we could be better. The focus is there for us. That hasn’t wavered at all. We’ve been battling. If you look at our record the last 25 games or so, it’s pretty good. We’ve just got to keep going, keep pushing.”
But will it be enough for the Kings to reach their benchmark of success for this season, an appearance in the second round of playoffs?
Anything is possible, no question, But, without Kopitar and Williams, no one should get their hopes up for the Kings to do anything more than simply qualifying for post-season play.