The Los Angeles Kings made the playoffs last season after six seasons of going home early, and as this fall rolled around, they were said to be a better team. Better in net, better on defense, and maybe slightly better up front.
Coming out of game three, there was only slight proof that that was true, though they were sitting on a 2-1 record.
Not having made the rumored deal for Ilya Kovalchuk, the team wasn’t sporting any brand new offensive stars as they opened the year on the road for two Western Conference games, but their forwards lines were perhaps deeper, with a fourth unit that fans who watched the team end last season with a 4-2 series defeat by Vancouver would not have known two-thirds of.
The 20-man going into the third game (the first home contest) against Atlanta Tuesday night saw 30% of the lineup differing from what the team had iced back in April. This included Jonathan Bernier as backup netminder, Willie Mitchell and Jake Muzzin on defense, and four forwards who were new. The most notable of those was Brayden Schenn, brother to Luke and a current fourth-liner toiling alongside Brad Richardson and Kevin Westgarth.
Schenn played one game for the Kings last year on an emergency callup basis, but spent the majority of the season with the Wheat Kings of Brandon, Manitoba. The difference in population between his old town and his new one? About 9,954,000. But probably not as much difference in hockey fans, as anyone who knows the lore of the Wheat Kings might recognize. (Start with the Tragically Hip’s song “Wheat Kings” as a way to get your head around this.)
“It’s a big city, but it’s a good city to play hockey in,” Schenn said about the adjustments living in LA. “The Kings are trying to build it up, and that’s our goal for the year, to keep on winning hockey games and hockey will become big.”
He said that he has spoken to older brother Luke (Maple Leafs defensmean), but not specifically about his NHL debut, and that his goal at this point is to “stay consistent. Consistency is huge. I worry about it one shift at a time.” His daily routine these days includes living in a hotel, eating restaurant food, and, though he didn’t say it, likely wondering if he’ll make it past the nine-game cutoff that will determine whether he returns to Junior hockey.
His early season play has impressed his coach, and he’s shown a willingness to go to the net, and to fire the puck. In the first two games, he had seven shots and had played about 14 minutes per contest. In game three against the Thrashers, he grabbed a loose puck at the right side of the net in the first period and launched it high only to see it knocked away by Chris Mason’s blocker. It’s the kind of shot that would normally surprise a goalie, and go in, but the bounces have not been there thus far for the kid. He’s likely to get one soon, though, if he doesn’t press.
Schenn’s icetime was cut a little in game three, to about nine minutes, and he had just the one shot.
So why is the youngster on the fourth line? Partly because his coach is more or less rolling four at this point, and partly because the Kings have established a lineup that features many of the same combos as last year.
Up front are Anze Kopitar, Andre Loktionov, and Dustin Brown. Loktionov? He played last season but was hurt in his first game, a shoulder injury which kept him out for the balance of the year. More on him in a game or two.
Next would be Ryan Smyth, Jarret Stoll, and Justin Williams. No change there from late in the prior season after Williams returned from another of his multiple injuries. The Smyth-Williams duo is known for grit plus finesse, in that order. Tuesday night, however, they reversed it on the Kings first goal, with Williams in the crease when the puck got there slamming at it, and Smyth coming from behind the net to backhand in the rebound.
“It’s a matter of going to the net hard, and getting gritty,” Smyth said about the role reversal. “I thought Willie [Justin Williams] played an awesome game tonight, and Stolly [Jared Stoll], and I thought the chemistry we had was good. Hopefully we can maintain something and continue that.”
The third line consisted of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Michal Handzus, and Wayne Simmonds. Again, there’s a new face there—the first mentioned. The joke going around (not that far around, actually) goes something like, “How do you spell that guy’s name?” “F-R-O-L-O-V,” the point being that Ponikarovsky is a cypher for Alex Frolov, a Russian with a big smile that he used to hide the fact that he was getting away with something. That something was getting paid a lot of money to underachieve.
That, so far, has been nothing like fair to Ponikarovsky. He has played about 13 minutes a game, with a shot in game two, and one in game three. His contribution, if anything, differentiates him from Frolov to this point because it looks like he’s plugged in, going after loose pucks and getting deep in the corners when it’s called for. His point contribution, should he play to form, will be about 40 points on the year.
As for the Kings’ offensive performance, it’s still developing. Against Calgary on the weekend and early on in the Atlanta game Tuesday, the chances were few, the rebounds nil, and the traffic in front of the net nonexistent, at least until late in the Atlanta contest. The team looked for all the world like the LA team of at the end of Marc Crawford’s tenure, when the team had turned him off. Tuesday night against the Thrashers, the Kings trailed in shots for much of the first two periods, at one point being behind 19-12.
Another way to look at it is that it’s not that they’re not in synch, though they’re probably still not entirely playing without having to think about where their partners are, but they’re just not getting the bounces. They did even up the shots near the end of the second period, and pull ahead as the frame concluded, but they were down a goal by that point, and their stat sheet showed eight penalty minutes against four for Atlanta.
None of the Kings’ infractions had been the goal-saving kind. Most were, instead, reaching penalties, or careless—closing a hand on the puck, putting one over the glass—not the kind you win with. It created what coach Terry Murray described as the rhythm of the game.
“Our play at the start was intense.” But there were three penalties. Then Atlanta scored first, and “You get that mentality that they pull back and sit and protect their D zone.” But in the third, things changed. “We had a real North mentality, and we got the puck in below the goal line and made things happen.”
Early on, the Kings were not making any of their own luck. Nobody was in front of the net, and none few of the chances that they were generating were particularly dangerous.
But everything changed in the third.
The Kings got that gritty goal by Smyth at 3:53 to tie the game at 1-1. They got another when Stoll broke in across the offensive zone going right to left and reached out to shoot. As he did, the Atlanta defenseman chasing him got his stick out and on the puck. The result was a floating wrister that fluttered past Chris Mason on the long side, his blocker side to give the Kings a 2-1 lead.
Call it luck if you want—a standard wrister might not have gone in—but the goal came as a result of the forward going to the net. As mid-period came, the Kings had moved past Atlanta in shots, 32-25 with about 7:00 left. More importantly, they were controlling the play much more. The puck was in the visitors’ end, and when it got to the LA zone, it was quickly gobbled up by the Kings.
Along the way, Jonathan Quick made a couple of good saves, including a patented splits as Brian Little got in more or less alone after a muff at the Thrashers’ blueline sprung him. Notable on the play was that Schenn was diving back in hopes of preventing a scoring play, and he got a stick on the puck as Little let it go.
The Kings added an empty net goal at the end from Smyth. He figured in all the scoring, with two goals and an assist. That line, in the end, was the best one for the Kings, and if they’re scoring, it’s only a matter of time until Kopitar’s starts to mimic that. Then, maybe, the Kings can be the better team they’ve been looked at to be all through the summer.
Brian’s book Living the Hockey Dream probably has the story of your favorite NHL star in it. Check it out to see–Amazon has it!