Problems with the Process in L.A.

Each time the Kings meet the Predators this year, they’re doing worse than the time before. Their first encounter this season saw LA in the midst of a six-game win streak. The contest with Nashville was the fourth of those games, and LA won it, 4-1.

The second meeting of the two clubs saw the Kings coming off of a six-game string where they had won all but two, an overtime loss and a loss on the night right before they went into Nashville. They won that game, too, with a six-goal explosion. Jonathan Bernier was the goaltender in both of these games against the Preds.

The third meeting of the season, which took place Thursday night, saw the LA club in the midst of a losing streak that is their worst of the year, four big “Ls” in a row on their record. Bernier was again in goal for the Kings, having a perfect record against the Predators for two of his four wins on the season to date.  His last game was a 7-4 pasting at the hands of Philadelphia which took place on December 30th.

In fact, the team is on quite a slide, so the Kings’ coach, Terry Murray, has seemed mindful of the need to do something different for the past few days.  Practices have seen him playing with line combinations, and he was firm in his comments to the press yesterday in suggesting that he had some new ideas up his sleeve.

These took the form of a grand shift in lines which saw two major surprises:  one was that Michal Handzus, who has anchored the third line and played a superb shutdown role all season, found himself with Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams on his wings.

The other change was that Marco Sturm, acquired from Boston a couple of weeks ago and still coming back from  knee surgery about six months ago, was demoted from his previous position on the first line (2-1-3 over eight games since December 21st) to third-line duties. He toiled there with Kyle Clifford and Jarret Stoll.

Murray’s comments in the local press didn’t pose the move as bearing any disgrace. Rather, he said that Sturm simply needs time to get into game shape, and that pushing him to take first-line minutes just isn’t the right strategy right now.

Going to that line didn’t hurt him, actually, as he set up the Kings’ first goal by taking the puck to the net and holding it until Clifford was with him, then firing one off of Anders Lindback’s pads which Clifford whacked in for his third goal of the year. This happened early in the second period. That was a bright spot, perhaps the first of the night, an evening which stared out with neither team looking particularly sharp.

The Kings couldn’t get any speed generated out of their zone or into the other through the whole first period. Perhaps due to unfamiliarity of players with one another, the team looked like the would start up ice, stop, wait for others to catch up, and it went in fits and starts like that all through the frame.

Going into the offensive zone, the Kings often made short passes to each other which allowed for no flow to develop, or long passes which were intercepted by the defense. This wasn’t due to lack of effort, as they kept pressing, but what happened was that each man seemed to be working for himself, rather than finding his teammates.

Other line combinations than those mentioned included the first unit, now made up of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, and Wayne Simmonds. Two surprises there: Brown is playing left wing, and Simmonds is on line one. The first event is not unprecedented, as the Captain had played a handful of games on the left side a month or so ago. It is often said when he is written about that he is a “natural right wing,” which probably means that he’s played there a lot and that he shoots right. But he’s adept at the switch although it might be noted that his hitting isn’t as intense from that side, maybe due to the fact that the boards are on his opposite hand.

Simmonds had been playing with Handzus on the third line, a perfect pair for grit and tenacity. On that unit, he had 15 points (eight goals), but his offensive capabilities were perhaps a bit shadowed by the fact that he played against the other teams’ best players night after night. On the first line, he would be free to let fly a little more on offense.

He didn’t do that, but he did stand up for linemate and captain Brown by fighting and beating the heck out of Francis Bouillon in the second period. The former had harassed and dumped Brown in front of the Nashville net twice with no penalty called.  He then got in Brown’s face and challenged him, with Brown skating away. Ten minutes later, and perhaps also trying to shift momentum with the Kings having blown their lead, Simmonds came right after Bouillon, took off his own helmet, and punched it out with him, sending him to the locker room.

The fourth line also saw a change as Peter Harrold came in to replace thug Kevin Westgarth alongside Brad Richardson and Trevor Lewis. They didn’t play a lot of time, about ten minutes apiece, though it must be said that Westgarth had been getting about five a game over the past few nights.

The Kings jumped out to a 2-0 lead on the strength of the goal described above and a power play marker, but gave up their lead in short order, allowing Nashville to score three times in five and a half minutes.

Only one of the goals could be charged to the goalie, the second one, which saw a long rebound go out to Marek Svatos, who punched it in. The other two were a good shot-pass that Colin Wilson put in and a power play redirection that saw the Kings’ defense standing still rather than laying down in front of the initial shot.

The game ended 5-2 for Nashville with the Kings having scored the first two (World Junior collapse, anyone?) and then supplying nothing more on offense. Predators coach Barry Trotz said that he thought his players had a lot of jump despite having played the night before.

“We have a lot of guys who have good character  The last two times we played LA they sort of embarrassed us,” said Trotz. “They dominated us the game here [in November] . . . and then they really took us to task 6-1 at home.

“The guys never want to get beaten that bad at home, and the guys remember that a little bit and had a lot of determination tonight.”

Terry Murray had no answer for his club’s lack of success.

“The start was good, but we were not able to get things done on the penalty kill tonight,” he said. “Then they ended up scoring a couple of goals on the five-on-five that I would sure like to see redone again.

“We seemed to sabotage ourselves a little bit with our play and taking some penalties. We were not able to get the penalty killing going the way we had it going, and it’s costing us games right now.”

He then appeared to go back to the question of what went wrong. “The second goal there, that ends up coming down the lefthand side, that’s a very hard play for a defenseman.”

He went on to describe the play, and ended up “and the puck is in the net on the rebound, so we need to clean a couple of things up.”

The goaltending wasn’t really great, but it wasn’t the problem. But Murray is not accurate in his assessment of either netminder. He commented that the Nashville goaltender was sharp, but that was anything but true in period one, where pucks were getting through him and rolling wide, or handcuffing him. He didn’t turn in a single big save early, though Bernier had a couple.

It wasn’t that which turned things against LA. It was their lack of synch and grit.

“It’s about an attitude right now to me,” Murray said. “I think we gotta get back into that more compete [mode], dig in and earn the right to win some hockey games. . . .  At times we were reaching in and trying to recover pucks with sticks and with arms. You’ve got to have an attitude that you’re going to use your body to separate the man from the puck.”

“We stopped playing and stopped working,” Brown said. “We need to have a bigger effort from the start, especially at home here. We need to get back on track and playing the right way.  I always say you worry about the process and not the result. Eventually the result is going to be there. Right now, we have some issues with the process.”

What’s wrong with the Kings?  Aside from being completely bamboozled by their new line assignments, they’re just too streaky.

Witness this:  during the seven games from early to mid-December, Kopitar scored six goals. He has just one since. During the four games late in the month of December, Brown scored five goals. He had just two during Kopitar’s streak, and has none since.

During the four games preceding the Nashville meltdown, Ryan Smyth had five goals, but he had had just two during all of those games that formed the other two players’ streaks, dating back to December 2nd.

In short, none of the Kings’ scorers can score at the same time, and having one guy carrying the load for stretches at a time, even if the lesser lights are chipping in a goal here and there, just isn’t enough to get momentum going.

The Kings were fourth in the West not long ago. Now, they’re out of the playoffs and sitting in 11th in the West. Nashville is currently fourth, but the consolation is that just three points separates the two. Had LA won, they would have been tied for fourth, and Nashville point behind in a four-way tie for sixth (as far as points go).

This is the team’s worst losing streak of the season. They previously dropped four games in a row in late November. They now play Columbus and Toronto at home before playing most of February on the road.

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