Kings Roll to League Lead

Do ten games mean anything in the run of a season? How about the first ten? How about eleven? The LA Kings certainly hope so, as coming into Saturday night, they were at the top of the league or close in a bunch of categories, not the least of which was points. They had 14 and Montreal, also having played ten times, had 15. LA had New Jersey at home, and they hoped that the Devils’ run of bad play and bad luck, broken only by a win in Anaheim Friday evening, would continue.

In other parts of the league, clubs were also looking for trends to carry on as they had been, as Toronto sat fourth in the East with eleven and Nashville was right behind the Kings with thirteen points and a game in hand. Why mention those two teams? Because their fans seem to be everywhere—every time you listen to a call-in show, they are touting their teams’ good starts. As for the Kings, they may not be phoning in to Gary Bettman’s NHL radio program, but they are growing in quiet confidence with every game that goes by.

The team is doing well despite having lost their super blueliner, Norris nominee of last year Drew Doughty. He collided with Eric Cole a couple of weeks ago and suffered an upper-body injury which has recently been reported as a concussion by local media. His return is likely for next Thursday. The Kings don’t play again until then, having defeated New Jersey Saturday night.

The other notable question mark on the night before Halloween was Wayne Simmonds. He left the game Thursday night in Dallas having logged just six-plus minutes with what the club called a lower body injury. Saturday he was back at it on his familiar line with Ponikarovsky and Handzus, this time charged with the goal of keeping Ilya Kovalchuk from doing anything. The scoresheet showed that he won the battle with his opposite 17, as Kovalchuk recorded no points on two shots. Those were balanced by three giveaways. Early on, Simmonds knelt to block a cross-ice pass from the New Jersey superstar, and he quickly turned the puck up ice. It was a sign of things to come.

Should there have been any doubt as to when Kovalchuk was on the ice, the LA crowd, which numbered 18,118, let Simmonds know with loud boos every time Kovalchuk stepped on, and especially when he touched the puck. It was almost like Rob Blake was back in the building. In fact, he was, part of a group of alumni assembled to honor former Captain Mattias Norstrom, who played with the club until 2007 and retired after spending the next year in Dallas. Ian Laperriere was there, too, looking good but saying between periods one and two that he is having sufficient trouble with the bright lights on the ice that a return, if it comes at all, is not in any immediate planning. He’s working out, though.

Kovalchuk wasn’t so much ineffective on the night as he was just abandoned. He often handled the puck, carrying it into the Kings’ zone on both the right and left sides, but once there, he seldom found anybody to dish it to, and would end up in the corner, looking to the front for help. His skill is obvious anytime he’s got the puck, but every time he has it, it’s also obvious what a team game this is. Without having established a comfort level that lets him dish with no second thoughts to his linemates, he was unable to do enough to score.

Perhaps two plays symbolize his frustration, and that of his team, which drops to 3-8-1 with the loss. The first was a carry in on goal on which he was defended by the Kings’ Matt Greene. The puck got up on end and rolled through Greene’s legs as the Russian tried to shoot. The second symbolic moment was when he tried to receive a pass in the high slot of his own zone, a soft one coming over from a defenseman, and his stick just snapped in two in his hands.

The problem is fairly obvious—he’s trying to do it all himself, and there’s not much help coming from other parts of the ice. That’s not to say the Devils had no effective offense in the game. In fact, in the third period, they posted 20 shots, a number of them tricky and close to catching Jonathan Quick off-guard. It’s not that he wasn’t ready, just that the Devils seem to have a way of launching shots from places where one “shouldn’t,” and the result is a goaltender who has to be vigilant and set, but never too set. They seem to like trying to catch the guy in net flatfooted.

Quick was better than they were, though, allowing just a single goal. It was on a shot that he didn’t see, as was obvious by his total lack of reaction as a wrist shot got past him in period two off the stick of Matt Taormina. He said about that goal, “It was a bit of a screen. You know, the guy was pretty high out. I kind of wish I had that one back. But it happens. The team responded; we came back and scored a big goal right after that.” In fact it was so fast that the announcer hadn’t finished telling the crowd about the NJ goal.

When asked about the Devils’ propensity to shoot what looked like knuckle balls, Quick responded by saying, “There was a couple that they got a stick on, but nothing really dramatic. There was maybe a subtle tip here and there, but they didn’t change too much direction.”

He also commented on period three, when the Devils poured it on: “It might look like I’m getting a lot of work, but a lot of it came from the perimeter. The guys did a great job picking up guys and clearing out lanes. The ones I wasn’t able to control there, they were able to get the rebounds and get them to the corners.”

The Kings have a number of other things to celebrate aside from good numbers and a defeat of the once-feared Devils. Quick leads the league in wins, and Dustin Brown leads the league in hits, with 43 entering Saturday, when he added three more.

As a team, the Kings came into the New Jersey game fourth in PK in the league, at just a tick under 90 percent. They killed two more Saturday night. They also had two wins when trailing after two periods. This put them tied for first in the league in the young season.

That stat, perhaps more than any of the others cited, tells something about this team. They are young, as has been noted previously, and while Kings teams in the past might have packed it in when things weren’t going well in the final period, or just, frustratingly, not been able to figure out a way to put things together, this team has a different way of doing things. Their general strategy Coach Murray calls a “North Mentality,” which means that the team goes to the other net.

Part of this is in how the game is turned up the ice from the defensive zone, and the Kings this year are placing a lot of responsibility on every player on the ice to get back and defend, then be ready to surge quickly to attack. This is designed to catch the other team off guard if they cheat into the zone, and to take advantage of the defense’s ability to make a good first pass. Even without Doughty, they are doing a good job getting out of their own zone, with newcomer Willie Mitchell often responsible for that.

The other part of that ability comes in the form of Matt Greene, who returned from off-season shoulder surgery October 23rd against Colorado. He has played about eighteen minutes a game since then, as is natural given his leadership role on the team, signaled in part by his wearing of the A for alternate captain. Saturday night he commanded a tick over 20 minutes on the ice, most often paired with Mitchell.

The youngsters, as well, are playing strong, though neither is probably getting the minutes he likely wants. The two notables, Kyle Clifford and Brayden Schenn, are not logging huge ice time, but their coach is pleased with what they’re doing. Schenn played seven of the first ten games, with an ice-time high of 15:31 against Phoenix in the desert. His playing time was down to ten minutes the next game, then he sat two, and then played ten in Dallas. Saturday night, he got in for eight minutes. He has recorded two assists to date.

Clifford played six of the first ten contests, getting eight minutes in Chicago for a high. He gets about seven minutes most nights, and hasn’t recorded a point yet. When asked about the two, particularly what will happen when they reach the point where they have to be sent to junior or stay up (at their tenth game), Coach Murray paused. He clenched his jaw together in the way you do when you make a tough decision that you really don’t want to make.

“That’s going to be a big conversation,” he began. “I really like what they’ve done. Both Schenn and Clifford have played hard, smart, intense. They’ve generated some opportunities in the offensive zone. The line had an impact in the outcome of the game in Dallas the other night.”

“That’s going to be a conversation, that’s for sure. It’s going to be a hard conversation to have, just with us coaches and management, whenever that time gets here, and it’s arriving pretty quickly.”

The Kings have played a game or two more than most other teams in the league, but being first overall exiting Saturday night isn’t something Murray takes lightly. “It has meaning. Your goal is to win hockey games, and it’s nice that we’re putting some points on the board in the early part of the season. We got off to a really good start last year, and it paid off for us. There’s always going to be a lull at some time, and you have to have that cushion to fall back on, although I don’t want to take that step backwards that we did last year.”

Folk wisdom has it that the Kings still need a big scorer, but they’re getting good production from their first and second lines (Williams, Stoll, Smyth; and Kopitar, Richardson, and Brown). Saturday night in their 3-1 win, they got goals from Williams, Handzus, and Stoll, the latter of whom added two assists to his goal. The second goal was on the power play. All the scoring was over by the halfway mark of the second period, which was true only because of Quick’s outstanding play in the third.

Kings Notes

Norstrom, accompanied by his family, received a couple of gifts and a framed sweater from the team. He is currently living back in Sweden, working as a partner in a firm which provides insurance and financial services to artists and athletes. He did not rule out the possibility that he might get into coaching sometime, and when asked whether he would ever live in LA again, he said that he would. The two are not necessarily connected, but it’s interesting to note that if a defensive coach position ever came up, he might think about it.

Ryan Smythe will play his thousandth game two games from now. He will be the 17th Kings player to have reached that milestone in the uniform. Brown and Stoll should each reach game 500 this season, barring health issues.

Like Laperriere as a player? Read his story in Brian’s new book, Living the Hockey Dream.

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