Murray Pulls the Trigger

“A little bit of complacency might be setting in,” said LA Kings coach Terry Murray as he explained the team’s line and defense pairing changes to Kings reporter Rich Hammond late this week.

Complacency? How could a squad be feeling self-satisfied when they’re facing the prospect of having to survive without their two best offensive threats as the season winds up? Within a week of one another, as most fans know, Justin Williams and Anze Kopitar went out with serious injuries. Williams might be back in time for the playoffs, but Kopitar will not recover this season, as revealed earlier in the week.

In the shadow of these events, the team won the game Kopitar went out of, then beat Edmonton a couple of nights later. They then lost to Vancouver in a 3-1 game which might as well have been 6-1. The Kings were never really in contention, their defensive mistakes and lack of shot production (19) all game surely distressing to their coach.

On the other hand, Edmonton is not much of a measuring stick, whereas Vancouver is a standard too high for anyone, or at least has been up to this point in the season. Sure, the Kings ought to get up for every game they play against the Canucks given their playoff spanking at Vancouver’s hands last year, but at this juncture, nobody can do much with that team, so to say that the Kings are the worse for having lost to them isn’t really to judge on a fair sample.

Do you have three hands? Because on the third one, consider this: Murray has been somewhat conservative as a coach. Prime example—last year he overplayed Jonathan Quick despite saying he wouldn’t, because every time “the next game” came along, it seemed important enough to win that he didn’t feel comfortable with his backup. Another example—he’s essentially defensive in his philosophy toward the game. Even Kopitar was noted all year as having adapted his game to play with both ends of the ice in mind.

In that vein, it might have been that Murray would tolerate the loss to Vancouver and move on with things much as they were, figuring the ship might right against more human opponents the Dallas Stars, which the team was to play Saturday at home, and the San Jose Sharks (Monday, away). But instead of taking a wait and see attitude, Murray pulled the trigger, doing a wholesale recombination of forward lines and defensive pairings.

His lines Saturday, and, one would assume, the ones he will use in the days to come, were like this: First, Dustin Penner, Michal Handzus, and Dustin Brown. Second, Oscar Moller, Jarret Stoll, and Ryan Smyth. Third, Wayne Simmonds, Brad Richardson, and Kyle Clifford.  Fourth, Trevor Lewis, Alexi Ponikarovsky, and Kevin Westgarth.

On paper, these make so much sense that you’d almost not notice the absence of the two superstars. The first line has size and grit.  Make that more buzz, in the form of Brown getting in on the forecheck. The second has the speed. The third, speed and grit. The fourth, grit.

But each also has a significant drawback. For the first, that’s speed. Penner is smart with the puck and hard to knock off of it, but he’s also no speed merchant. His game is getting his mates into the zone and controlling the puck, maybe dishing a pass off the boards and then setting up in front.

For the second line, the negative is defense. Moller, in particular, hasn’t adapted his game to Murray’s two-way style very well. Maybe it’s just his youth, but he doesn’t make decisions quickly enough, nor does he think, while he’s doing A, of B. The game’s speed at the NHL level just isn’t under his command yet.

The third line has a slight drawback in Clifford, who, though he scores from time to time, also makes poor, impulsive decisions. Against Vancouver, that meant boarding Christoper Tanev late in the game and earning a five-minute major penalty which, combined with a minor taken by Matt Greene, spelled the end for the Kings as they allowed a goal which sealed it for the Canucks.

The fourth line as presently constituted suffers from a simple lack of puck skills. While Ponikarovsky is big, and has contributed 15 points in 56 games, he’s best used when there’s a complement of speed on his line. He digs the puck out, someone else puts it in the net. Neither Westgarth (the team’s thug) nor Lewis can do that, though Lewis has possibilities as he continues to develop.

Theory aside, how’d it work against Dallas? After a number of plays in either direction over the course of the first period and a quarter which had players in on goal one-on-one and taking dangerous wrist shots from out high, the Kings scored. It was a simple play, all the players in Dallas’s end on the lefthand side.  The puck came over to the right point to Willie Mitchell. As it did, everyone followed, flowing over. But Mitchell got the shot off quickly and with a defenseman in front of the net and Wayne Simmonds also on that side, he saw it redirected by Simmonds and squeaking past the goalie, Lehtonen.

The goal actually was a pretty good illustration of what that line can do, with Lewis digging the puck out of the corner and Simmonds getting to the front to redirect.

“The way he was starting to get going in that second half is what we need,” Murray said about Simmonds.

Almost directly after, though, the Smyth line got caught up ice in what would otherwise have been an innocent rush by the Stars. They went down 3-on-2, and a simple wrist shot from the player on the righthand side, Brad Richards got it past Quick. It’s too bad to have to say it, but it wasn’t a good goal. The puck went right through the five-hole, dribbling in as another Stars’ player came behind to give it an unnecessary insurance poke.

The second period ended 1-1, and for Kings’ fans, despite the promise of new line combos, that wasn’t the greatest sign, because, without too much disrespect to Dallas, if you can’t get your game together against lesser competition, the how are you going to play the premiere teams in the Conference, which is what LA will be doing a week or so from now should they hang on for the post-season?  (And all the hope of Calgary and Dallas notwithstanding, it’s unlikely that any but Chicago will fall out of the current top eight, and even that’s somewhat statistically unlikely.)

The goal which won it was a hardworking effort by the Simmonds line. Simmonds dug the puck off the boards at the lefthand side and put it to the front, where Clifford was laid out by a cross-check. The puck went past him and toward the right boards, where Greene was streaking in. He slapped a one-timer that would have gone two feet wide to the long side had not Alex Goligosky not been standing in his crease. The puck hit him on the outside of the right skate and deflected into the open side of the net.

“In the second half of the game, I thought he was really good,” Murray added about Simmonds. “The goal that Greene scores, off the faceoff, he shows a lot of dig in, uses his size, strength, battle, and then his awareness on the ice to make those kinds of plays.”

Simmonds himself commented that the two points were crucial, and that he felt settled along with his team, having resigned themselves to the loss of their star players, particularly Kopitar.

“That [hard work] is the staple of our game, and tonight it paid off,” he indicated.

The Kings got a late empty net goal from Brown to seal it at 3-1. Murray said that he hasn’t looked at the standings “for at least ten minutes,” but that “No, I’m not a Duck fan,” when asked whether he would be watching Anaheim versus Dallas Sunday. Should the Ducks beat Dallas in regulation, the Kings are safely in, no matter what happens to the teams below them.

The win Saturday was based on grit, which, as was said, is one thing that team is good for. The question is, how far is grit going to take you in the playoffs?

“We’re amped up, and we’re trying to get every point we can,” Simmonds concluded. “You’ve got to have energy to win these games.”

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