A tease is exactly what the Kings are right now, given their penchant for showing that they can dominate the National Hockey League’s best teams with stellar play in all three zones and in all facets of the game, only to turn right around and look completely lost for lengthy stretches of games.
Indeed, that is exactly what they have been doing so far this season, starting with a 12-3-0 run, only to lose seven of their next eight games. They followed that with a 9-3-0 run in December, only to lose their last four games, their latest being a 4-3 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at Staples Center in Los Angeles on January 3.
Those hills and valleys—more like Mount Everest and the Dead Sea, the highest and lowest points on Earth—have been glaring all season long.
During their hot streaks, the Kings displayed some of the best play seen from them in a long, long time.
“In those games, the Kings played the best hockey I’ve seen them play in twenty years,” said Jim Fox, Kings television color commentator and former right wing who ranks eighth on their all-time scoring list, referring to the Kings’ 5-0 win at Colorado on December 21, a 4-1 victory over the Anaheim Ducks on December 26, and a 4-0 win at San Jose on December 27.
On the other hand, during their losing streaks, the Kings have been plagued by shoddy, careless defensive play, a plethora of turnovers near the blue lines, weak play in front of both nets—their entire game has fallen apart.
In their last two games, the Kings have improved a bit, fixing the glaring defensive zone blunders that allowed 13 gift-wrapped goals to the Phoenix Coyotes on December 29 (a 6-3 loss at Staples Center), and the Philadelphia Flyers on December 30 (a 7-4 loss at Staples Center).
But the Kings are still quite a ways away from their highest level of performance in recent memory that Fox mentioned.
“We had our chances, we just didn’t bury them,” right wing and team captain Dustin Brown said following the Kings’ loss to the Sharks on New Year’s Day. “The effort was there, we had good defensive play. We gave up one goal—I think it was a three-on-three.”
“We have to get more bodies around the net,” Brown added. “Their defense did a good job of letting [Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi] see the puck, too. We had a lot of chances from the point where he saw the puck and made saves, so we’ve got to get more guys in front of the net and around the net.”
“When you take a look at the end of two periods, we’re basically doing a lot of good things,” said head coach Terry Murray. “Our shot count is up, we had a lot of really good scoring chances. But I thought, in the offensive zone, we were not creating enough traffic at their net. [Niemi] saw a lot of pucks that were coming from up top. He’s a good goaltender, but he’s going to be a better goaltender if you don’t create a lot of havoc and get in his face on a consistent basis, and I thought we were just inconsistent in that area.”
Despite the problems, there were things to feel good about.
“I was very pleased with this game tonight, as far as the compete [level],” Murray stressed. “Everybody was connected emotionally. I thought everyone came out with the intensity and purpose. Every shift had meaning to it. The right stuff was done.”
“Everything was in place. We just didn’t find a way to put it in the net.”
The Kings came out firing on all cylinders against the Blackhawks on January 3, looking like they had all been fired out of a 16-inch gun on a battleship.
But the intensity did not last, as the Kings came out flat in the second period, and that was all she wrote, as the Kings lost the game, 4-3.
“I felt the start of the game was excellent,” said Murray. “We did everything we wanted to do with the intensity, knowing they were a team that played yesterday. We had a lot of offensive zone time.”
“The second period—we were fine for the first four or five minutes,” added Murray. “Then, the intensity changed. The tempo changed. We got ourselves in trouble and stopped managing the puck the right way. We forgot about the details of the game. We were not bumping people the way we were in the first period, and they got their legs. They started to skate, and came at us.”
“Our attention to detail broke down, and it cost us again. I think we shot ourselves in the foot again here tonight with the intensity and with the details with the puck.”
“The effort was there, but it was there in spurts,” center Anze Kopitar lamented. “We have to figure out how to have it there for sixty minutes. That’s when our game and our team takes over. When we can pull together a string of [good, solid] shifts, we can dominate any team in the league.”
“For some reason, we let up,” Kopitar added. “Sometimes we try to do too much. Other times, we’re not doing the right things on the ice. That burns us every time. We get scored on, and I think that’s just the most disappointing thing—not pulling together a sixty-minute effort.”
So what is the reason for the Kings’ inability to stay focused and on task?
If you ask Murray, he will tell you that his team is still quite young and inexperienced.
“The consistency of performance is where you want to get to,” Murray explained. “Usually, you get to that level when you become a more mature hockey club. You’re going to have high level performances, you’re going to have great wins like we’ve had recently, but you can let it fall out if you’re not totally on page [mentally], and being able to deal with the success that you have.”
“If you back off the gas pedal a little bit, emotionally, it’ll come back and bite you, and it has two games in a row, especially the game in Phoenix, I thought we were not [tuned into] what was going on, and [we paid] for it,” Murray elaborated.
“That’s part of the learning process that you’re going to go through. You’re going to have to deal with the lows and deal with the highs and try to find that common ground of staying level-minded about it all, and come to work the next day and do it all over again.”
The young Kings are going to have to start growing up fast if they want to make the playoffs and do some damage once they get there, especially given the fact that the Western Conference standings have been so tight since the start of the season and are likely to remain that way until the end.
“It shows to all of us, and certainly to a young hockey club, that everything matters,” said Murray. “Every play matters. Every puck possession, every shift that you’re out there, it’s important to stay totally focused and intense. It all matters a great deal.”
“That’s the way it’s going to be in the second half of the year,” added Murray. “It’s one-goal games all the time, and we know what it’s like in the playoffs,” he added, following the loss to the Sharks. “It’s a lesson we need to take out of this one.”
“The good teams just do it every time, every shift. They just play. It’s like the [golf] pro playing against the -5 handicap golfer. He just has to play the game because he knows that you’re a -5 handicapper. He knows something’s going to give down the road.”