LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — The Los Angeles Kings are currently in the Western Conference playoff picture, holding down the eighth and final playoff berth, through games played on March 6. But they are just four points behind the fourth place Chicago Blackhawks, and six points behind the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks, who are ranked third in the Western Conference.
But, on the flip side, the Kings are just one point ahead of the Minnesota Wild, Anaheim Ducks and Nashville Predators, and could easily find themselves way down in 12th place in the conference and out of the playoff picture in the blink of an eye.
With 17 games remaining, the Kings have a favorable schedule the rest of the way, with just six of those games to be played outside of California.
But there are big, red warning flags flying around this team right now, as their offense, ranked 21st in the National Hockey League (averaging 2.66 goals per game; the Detroit Red Wings lead the league with 3.26 goals per game), has been highly inconsistent all season long, leaving their defense and goaltenders to bear much of the burden of keeping their playoff hopes alive.
Indeed, their defensive play, and especially goaltenders Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, have been forced to carry most of the load, which begs the question:
Will they be able to shoulder that load the rest of the way, getting the Kings into the playoffs and, maybe even win a round, or will they collapse under all that weight?
To be sure, once a team makes the playoffs, anything is possible. However, conventional wisdom dictates that the Kings could already be in big trouble with their highly inconsistent offensive production at even strength, and especially on the power play, which has been absolutely dreadful all season (currently ranked 19th with a 17.1 percent rating).
In other words, the Kings’ offense, or lack thereof, is an obvious drag on their forward progress, jeopardizing their playoff hopes for this season.
To make matters worse, number one goaltender Quick may be showing signs of wear with all that weight on his shoulders.
To be sure, in Quick’s last six games, he has not been the goaltender he was in the months prior, earning a 3-3-0 record, with a 2.92 goals-against average (GAA), and a .887 save percentage.
Those are certainly not the numbers a goaltender for a playoff team can afford to have, and are clearly well off Quick’s season numbers—28-17-2 record, a 2.22 GAA and a .918 save percentage.
Quick put in his worst performance of the season on February 28, allowing six goals on 24 shots, in a 7-4 loss to the Red Wings at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“I did think about [pulling Quick] after the first goal,” Murray said bluntly. “I don’t like that first goal.”
“This is the time that you’ve got to dig in,” Murray added. “You bring your ‘A’ game. Everybody has to be responsible for that. In my mind, that’s the player himself. In all the days that I played, that’s your responsibility as a player, to get yourself ready to do the right things so that you’re coming to the rink and you’re going to play.”
“If you’re off your ‘A’ game, you bring your best ‘B’ game. You’ve got to have your goaltender on top of his game anytime you play Detroit. He had a real tough game here today.”
Quick acknowledged that he was off his game.
“I let in a bad goal, and kind of took the momentum [away from the Kings and gave it to the Red Wings],” he said. “The next thing you know, it’s 2-1 [in favor of the Red Wings].”
“I didn’t get better from there, unfortunately.”
Murray was still unhappy with his number one netminder the next day, so much so that he not only decided to give Bernier the start in their next game, but he rather pointedly called out Quick, an unexpected departure from his usual tact.
“It [the decision to sit Quick in favor of Bernier] has just about everything to do with the last game,” Murray stressed. “That’s how I make my decisions. I’ve got to see performance. If I’m seeing something with another player, as you know, in my decisions, at any time, I’ll take a player out if he’s not performing, or having a real difficult day.”
Murray’s decision turned out to be at least somewhat prophetic, as Bernier wound up pitching a shutout on March 3 at Staples Center, earning a 1-0 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes, stopping 25 shots.
One of those saves was of the spectacular nature, coming on a two-on-one opportunity for Coyotes forward Rostislav Klesla late in the third period.
“I just saw that it was a broken two-on-one,” Bernier explained. “Our defenseman was close too—I think it was [Coyotes forward Taylor] Pyatt who passed it. I kind of knew he was going to make that cross-pass. I just had to be really sure of my angle, and let the puck hit me.”
Bernier was very sharp, indeed. His positioning was good, he was playing at the top of his crease, he was strong in his crease, and he was finding the pucks through traffic.
“They have some really big forwards, so, especially on their power play, it was tough game to find the puck,” said Bernier. “Their power play is to bring the puck up on top and shoot it. They create a lot of traffic, but our guys in front of the net battled really hard. They let me see quite a few pucks.”
“Bernier had a real good game,” said Murray. “He had some plays coming at him where he worked real hard to find the puck, not only with his blocker and catching glove, but he also got his body in front of some shots that were outstanding saves, outstanding reads on his part, just to stay aggressive, find the puck and work hard. He was really on top of his game.”
Bernier has been hot enough to turn his crease into a pool of blue water of late, earning a 4-1-2 record (he had no decision in a mop-up appearance against Detroit on February 28), with a 1.49 GAA, a .943 save percentage, and two shutouts in his last seven games.
“Bernier has played very well in the last outings that he’s had, coming through that long road trip in February, he had a couple of real big games,” Murray noted. “You go into Washington, you’ve got one of the better offensive teams in the league—he does a great job.”
After struggling badly against the Red Wings, Quick bounced back against the Western Conference-leading Vancouver Canucks at Staples Center on March 5, even though he took a 3-1 loss.
In that game, the Kings seemed to be content with playing on the perimeter in the offensive zone—they rarely threatened. But, on the other end, Quick put in a solid effort in a losing cause, allowing two goals on 35 shots (the Canucks also scored an empty net goal).
“I was pretty pleased,” Murray said about Quick’s effort against the Canucks. “I thought he got better as the game went along.”
“Early, there were some pucks coming back out from long shots,” Murray added. “They ended up with what…[more than] thirty shots at the end of the night? They probably ended up with a dozen from the middle of the ice, the neutral zone. Some of those, early, were coming back out for long rebounds, and as we got going in the game, that cleaned up, and he did end up making some very big stops in the game, so, I did like what I saw as he kept digging in against a top opponent in the league.”
Despite that, Murray said that Bernier will get the start on March 7 against the Dallas Stars at Staples Center.
“Both goalies are good,” he emphasized. “Bernier had a shutout the other night. I think his game has really stepped up here from the start of the year.”
“With every second day coming through this month with very intense games, and with both goalies playing well, it’s a great opportunity to use those guys on a rotation,” he added. “That’s going to get us through to the end when I have to make a decision on what we’re going to do [in the post-season].”
The fact that Bernier has a 1.46 GAA, and a .947 save percentage in two games against Dallas gave Murray even more confidence in his decision.
“I’m aware of what he did in his past games [against the Stars],” said Murray. “It’s not the primary reason, but there was some consideration of that.”