Some like it hot. Terry Murray probably doesn’t like it quite as hot as it’s been in LA. And though the weather has been nice, warming up near 80 degrees most days since it stopped raining late last week we’re not talking about that kind of heat. We’re referencing the trouble that comes when things are not going well for a pro sports team, and the fans start to get restless. Forget the fans. Murray’s boss, GM Dean Lombardi, is the one whose patience is starting to wear thin.
The Kings started well, posting a four-game winning streak after gaining three points in their first three games. Then they tanked, losing four of the next seven and winning just one. Their record after 14 games was 6-5-3. What was worse, they weren’t scoring. Just 30 goals had been recorded, slightly over two per game.
And maybe worse yet is that at times, they had been simply awful on the ice. At least two home games to this early point in the season had left their coach speechless, Murray saying something to the effect of, “You can break it down all you want to, but there’s really nothing to say” to the press corps assembled to hear his game summary.
If you wanted to point to a person who was underperforming, it would be easy to single out Dustin Penner, who, despite coming into camp in shape and having lost a reported 18 pounds over the summer, isn’t scoring. As in, he has played twelve games coming into Tuesday night with Nashville in town, and he had one assist. Nothing more.
But the problem wasn’t his alone, by any means. Neither, however, were the difficulties what you might think them to be. Ask most Kings’ fans, and they’d probably say that the power play has been awful for a long while. In fact, coming into Tuesday night, the PP was sixth in the league at 21.6%. Surprising, since many, many times this year, it has seemed like the team wants to pass the puck around the perimeter, or hold it, rather than keeping it moving in and out and shooting when the opportunity presents itself.
Certainly, nobody would mistake the Kings for a bad penalty killing squad, and the stats bear it out—10th in the league, 86.5 percent. The goaltending, also, has mostly been stellar. Jonathan Quick had played twelve of the team’s games before Tuesday and had a 1.87 GAA. His counterpart, Jonathan Bernier, had played just twice before he got the start again the Preds. His numbers were less solid, with 3.56 goals against per game, but the two combined were fifth in the league with a 2.09.
This, of course, is helped by Coach Murray’s defense-first mentality, which IH has discussed many times before. And here it is again: the emphasis of the former stay-at-home defenseman is on defensive responsibility, and that’s fine, but the product, at least in the case of this particular roster, is too much skewed toward defending. Murray said after the game, “The one thing we all have to take pride in is our checking game. That’s one thing we’ve been very good at over the past couple of years, and we want to continue to be a good checking team, and when you do that . . . you end up with pucks on your stick more than what you would think . . . . Offensive opportunities will be created of of that.”
It doesn’t have to be so. A look down the road to Anaheim shows an old stalwart of the blueline coaching there, but a team that plays a much more interesting offense-first game. More fun to watch, but their results are no better, and a little bit worse, than the Kings’ right now. So what gives?
Well, back to the reference to heat, Murray has to be feeling it, no matter what the cause of his team’s failings. This week, Hall of Fame writer Helene Elliott of the LA Times wrote that GM Dean Lombardi had ended his early season resolve for patience. He has said that Murray needs to stop experimenting with his forward lineup, settling on 13 or 14 guys and being consistent. Elliott herself mentioned that the coach needed to stop his compulsive line juggling, which has been partly to blame for Penner’s productivity gap.
If things continued not to work, Lombardi would have to assert himself. How so? Well, he could obviously fire Murray, but come on—it’s not mid-November, and this is not the disaster of Tampa Bay a few seasons ago or New Jersey last year. Or even the Blues of this week. Still, it’s been talked about among the fan base.
He could make a trade. But that would be hard to pull off, both because you can’t trade an unproductive guy (Penner), you’re always unwise to trade a top-flight player just because things aren’t going well (Brown, Stoll, etc.) and because it was only this summer that, finally, the Kings were thought to have all the pieces they needed to do well. Trading anyone who matters would be like saying what the GM has done so far isn’t enough, and it’s unlikely that Lombardi would do that this early.
And at least for now, he doesn’t have to, because while the Kings came out and got a 2-0 lead against the Preds, then blew it to see the game tied at 2-2 after a period, they got two more in the second and held on to win the game, 4-3.
And hold onto your emotions: Penner had assists on both of the latter two goals. By the time the second period ended, the team was ahead 4-2, but also significantly ahead on the shot tally, 26-16. Now, it’s true that sometimes that can be deceiving, as long shots from way outside mean little. But on this night, these weren’t the type that the Kings were registering. They were meaningful shots, taken from the slot, one-timers, wristers, and turn-around blasts that came off of dangerous sticks. Refreshing.
Penner himself was in a precocious mood after the game. “It’s like fight club,” he said when asked about his slump prior to this game. “You don’t talk about fight club.”
He explained: “You knew it [his slump] was there, but you didn’t want to acknowledge. It wasn’t for lack of trying or not doing everything outside the game to get ready. There was a few injuries that maybe, um,” and here he paused for a long while. We leaned in, “didn’t help me, maybe got inside my head, but I’m feeling great.”
When pressed about whether he was 100 percent, he paused again. “My lower body is,” he said, and then said about his upper body, “I’m just getting there.” Then he threw in another joke, “Middle body’s OK.” This is the Dustin Penner I remember from Anaheim, before the big contract, before the notoriety. Maybe this Penner is finally the one fans have been waiting to see.
“I haven’t been giving you guys much to write about,” he said, “and that’s been my fault.” He added that the year he scored 30 goals, “I wasn’t putting in nearly the work I was this year, and in the summer, and it was just happening. Definitely when you’re struggling, you go through a lot of different outlooks for why it’s happening. For me, it was just to stop worrying about it, and just go out there and play.”
Now, don’t assume that this is a team which played like they were trying to keep their own jobs, or keep their coach in his. We all know what that looks like—desperate. This wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was just the Kings doing what anyone could tell that they were capable of, which is keeping the pressure on the other team and finishing plays with finesse.
Witness the team’s third goal. Dustin Brown got the puck after Penner gabbed a Nashville turnover, and Brown literally burst up the ice. He made a long cross-ice pass to Mike Richards, who fired a one-timer from one knee. The puck went between the goalie’s legs.
The fourth goal was from Williams out to Penner at the left faceoff dot. He double-clutched it and fired a wrister at the net. Simon Gagne was cruising across the netmouth and got a stick on it, kind of slowing the puck down and allowing it to squeak over goalie Anders Lindback’s left pad.
If you’re paying attention, you’ve noticed something else. The names on the scoresheet are all the big ones. Doughty got goal number two. Stoll assisted on that one, as he had on the first, scored by Alec Martinez. Brown had an assist on the third goal, as was said. Williams had two assists by this point in the game. Stoll had two. Aside from Martinez, the only person who was not amongst the big names on the Kings’ roster who had a point was Kyle Clifford.
Period three saw the teams trade more shots but nobody score until late, when with the goalie pulled, Horrnqvist deflected a Suter shot from the point to make it 4-3. But that was all, and the 7-5-2 Predators went their way down the freeway to Anaheim to try to redeem themselves Wednesday. The Kings, meanwhile, await the Canucks, who roll into town for a Thursday evening game. Then it’s Minnesota on Saturday night.
The new issue of The Fourth Period magazine is out now. Check it out at a local newsstand, or have a look at www.thefourthperiod.com. You can subscribe and get 12 issues for $24 bucks. The mag comes out four times a year and covers much more than hockey—it’s about your lifestyle. But there’s also lots of hockey.