EL SEGUNDO, CA — The Los Angeles Kings have returned to Southern California following a six-game Eastern road swing in which they earned a respectable 3-1-2 record. But that was part of a larger nine-game stretch of games, all on the road, in which they emerged with a 5-1-3 record, earning 13 out of a possible 18 points.
Indeed, the Kings now find themselves back in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference playoff race after a dreadful January that saw them drop out of contention with a poor 4-9-0 record for the month.
“We got ourselves back into the hunt with a great road trip,” said head coach Terry Murray. “That’s a nice accomplishment.”
“It was a very good road trip, absolutely,” added Murray. “We went into some very hard buildings and played extremely well. We would’ve loved to have finished it off last game with a big win, but it was a very good road trip.”
“It feels good,” said center Anze Kopitar. “That road trip wasn’t easy for us. We went into some tough buildings, and we pulled off some good games out of it. Maybe a few games, we’d want to take [them] back, maybe score a few more goals or play better.”
As Murray mentioned, the Kings were looking to end the trip on a high note with a win over the New York Islanders on Long Island, but, apparently, their heads caught a flight back to Los Angeles before the game started. The result: a sub-par effort and a 3-0 defeat on February 19.
“We played well in most of the games,” said forward Michal Handzus. “The last game was kind of a bummer. We needed those two points.”
“It’s tough,” Kopitar lamented. “It’s the last game of the road trip. It shouldn’t be an excuse, but everybody’s ready to go home, We were playing hard, we got some shots, we got some opportunities, but we just couldn’t cash in. Everybody was pretty tired and everything, not that it should’ve made an excuse. We could’ve played better, we could’ve done a better job. But, I think, overall, the road trip was pretty good.”
That dreaded last game of a lengthy road swing is often the bane of existence for an NHL teams.
“I think it’s a mental and a physical thing,” said Kopitar. “You’re pretty tired. You’re flying around everywhere, changing hotels all the time, checking in, checking out. Yeah, it’s mental, but it’s pretty hard on you, physically.”
Despite ending the trip on a low note, the Kings did what they needed to do.
“A lot of guys dug in very deep, the team was together, there was great energy and spirit throughout the team during the whole road trip,” said Murray. “I love the points that we got. Now we come [back home], and it’s a very competitive race in this conference to finish it off.”
“Overall, I thought it was a good trip,” said Kopitar. “We played some very good teams. We were able to get the points. That was a key for us. I thought we came together really [well] as a team.”
The Kings are now focused on winning the Pacific Division, with all five teams separated by just seven points from top to bottom, as of this writing.
“Everybody knows what the circumstances are now,” Murray stressed. “We’re sitting there at 68 points, you have an opportunity to win your division. It’s right there in front of you.”
“Our schedule is more even now as we finish this thing off,” Murray added. “We have some very big games—division and conference games. We just have to continue to play. We have to play our ‘A’ game, and it’s going to take every guy in the lineup to play that way, to stay on page.”
Handzus, the grizzled veteran, agreed.
“First and foremost, we haven’t accomplished anything yet,” he emphasized.” We’re right there, we were winning on the road. We have to keep winning and keep getting points. We can’t get too comfortable. The key to this season—we’ve been on hot streaks and we’ve been on cold streaks. We just to have solidify [things] and be consistent. I think that’s going to be key.”
“Everything is so even now,” he added. “We have to get back to the little things. Those little things will win games. We were talking about, when we were losing, that we have to go back to the little things, and go back to the basics. I thought [we did that]. We played pretty [well] defensively, we didn’t give up many goals, our goalie played great, our special teams played pretty good, and we scored timely goals.”
“The last three years, everyone’s been talking about how tight the Western Conference is. Every year, it’s getting tighter and tighter. We’ll see how it goes in the end. There’s going to be some separation. Some teams are going to be winning, and others will be losing. But, it looks like everybody’s winning, so we’ll see how it goes.”
Last year’s experience could help the still-relatively inexperienced Kings down the stretch.
“We take it a game at a time, but, at the same time, we worked through this last year,” Kopitar noted. “We know what it takes to make it to the playoffs.”
“The next few games are going to be huge for us,” Kopitar added. “We just have to bring our game. We have to worry about ourselves and our game. I’m sure that if we do that, we’ll be in good shape.”
But Kopitar has scored just one goal in his last 15 games, and only two in his last 25. To say that he is struggling in the goal scoring department would be an understatement of epic proportions.
The Kings need him to pick up the goal scoring pace, and soon. But Kopitar is trying to work his way out of his slump, and continues to have his eye on what is most important.
“It’s definitely not easy, but there’s nothing I can do right now,” said Kopitar. “It’s just going out and playing hard every night. If I score goals, if I make plays, if I get assists, whatever. As long the team wins, that’s the biggest thing.”
“I understand that [the team needs him to score goals],” added Kopitar. “I know that, and I’m working on it. Hopefully, it’ll go in a little more often than [it has].”
Although Murray knows that he needs more from his best player, he was not going to criticize him. Not yet, anyway.
“[The Kings do not need] more than what he’s given us here in the last three or four games,” said Murray. “I think he really elevated his game. [Against the Philadelphia] Flyers, that was a tremendous effort on his part. I just want him to continue with the level of play he showed at the end of the road trip. He did take it up to the next level.”
Murray did say that Kopitar not only needs to shoot the puck, but get it on net when he does.
“It always comes down to that easy answer, shoot the puck more,” Murray explained. “But, in reality, I would like to see him hitting the net more often. He’s taking shots. But we all have a tendency to be a little too fine, trying to put it under the crossbar on the far side, or the short side post, and it’s a very hard, small spot to hit.”
“Just get pucks to the net,” added Murray. “If we can get a little more chaos around the net, it doesn’t matter who ends up [being] responsible for that puck going in. Give us an opportunity, through some battles for those loose pucks in front, by hitting the net, hitting the goaltender, force him to make a stop. Then, we take it from there.”
Murray is hoping that the return of left wing Marco Sturm, who is expected to be activated from injured reserve on February 23, will give Kopitar a boost.
Sturm, who was placed on injured reserve on January 19 (retroactive to January 18) due to tendinitis in his knee, will play on a line with Kopitar and right wing Wayne Simmonds.
“[Sturm] has put a lot of work into all the practices in the days away from here on the road,” said Murray. “Practice day, morning skates, he got into the skating club pretty heavily on each of those days. I think he’s as good as where we’re going to get him to without playing the game.”
“Physically, he’s 100 percent,” added Murray. “Emotionally, he’s hungry, I know that. I had a conversation with him on the road about where he’s at in the mental, emotional side of the game. He’s hungry, he’s ready to play.”
“Now it’s time to put him on a line where he has an opportunity to play his game with good players, and then for us to evaluate him, see where he’s at, and for him to play good for the team, to help us win some games.”
With 14 out of their final 23 games at home, the Kings know that their destiny is in their own hands.
“That’s no secret,” said Kopitar. “Everybody knows that, everybody’s ready for it. Now we have to cash in here at home. We had a good road trip, but now we’ve got to bring our game to Staples Center and put up some wins.”
“We still have to win a lot of games to get in, [so] we have to keep it going,” said Handzus. “It’s not going to get any easier. It’s just going to get tougher.”