EL SEGUNDO -- Forget trying to put a finger on what turned this season around. You won't have enough hands.
One of the favorites to finish high in the Western Conference standings coming into the season, with a roster full of skill, youth and experience, the Los Angeles Kings were underachievers almost from the start.
Well, except for goalie Jonathan Quick.
They fired coach Terry Murray in mid-December, during a stretch in which they didn’t score more than two goals in any of 14 straight games, and brought in a more leathery figure in Darryl Sutter.
He got the Kings to stand up straight all right, but still couldn’t coax the players to put the puck in the net. Over the next two months, the offense continued to languish at the bottom of the league in scoring, averaging little more than two goals a game.
Just as the trade deadline came and went in late February, the Kings suddenly turned a corner, finishing 13-5-3 and averaging just over three goals a game to sneak into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. Not what many envisioned coming into the season, but part of the postseason, nonetheless.
They hit the reset button and came out motivated, healthy and ready for the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks, won the first two games in Vancouver and upset the President Trophy winners in five games.
In a near repeat performance so far, the Kings stole the first two games of their second-round series in St. Louis and return home Thursday night for Game 3 against the St. Louis Blues at Staples Center.
How did the coaching change factor in the turnaround?
What role did the trade deadline play in the sudden resurgence?
Which key players have stepped up at just the right time?
Here’s a look at a closer what ignited this reversal of fortune:
Before: Sutter and the players have credited Murray with putting the foundation in place to make this amazing run. At his first practice with the Kings in the fall of 2008, he got out the paint can and marked the most crucial areas of the ice to defend. Murray taught defense first, and the Kings still live by that mantra. Unfortunately, his outward demeanor was about as intense as a waiter in a five-star restaurant.
After: Sutter doesn’t bother with a paint can, has no use for the grease board and his whistle rarely touches his lips. He bleeds intensity, from his dark-eyed glare to his pregame pep talks. Some players have said he walks around the locker room before games as if he were getting pumped up to play. It took a while, but the Kings began matching Sutter’s intensity in late February and have taken it to a higher level in the postseason.
Quote: “Darryl’s personality is really intense,” Dustin Penner said. “It leaked down to everyone else and the team kind of took on his personality.”
Drawing the Line
Before: Under the old regime, the defensemen for the Kings typically gave themselves a cushion when faced with an oncoming rush, dropping back into their zone and trying to use good positioning and stick work to keep the puck between them and their goal. Can’t say it wasn’t effective, as the Kings were ranked in the top 10 in the league in goals against the previous two seasons.
After: One of the more subtle changes Sutter instituted was a change in defensive philosophy. He wanted to cut down the amount of time the Kings spent defending their zone, so he asked the defensemen to stand up to the oncoming rush at the blue line, whether it’s knocking opposing players off the puck or forcing them to dump and chase. That seems to have led to more possession time in the offensive zone and more opportunities to put the puck in the net.
Quote: "We changed up a few things that allowed us to be a little more aggressive,” defenseman Alec Martinez said. “That’s one thing we want to focus on, is holding the blue line, and not let the team gain an easy entry.”
Before: On the surface, the roster Sutter inherited wasn’t significantly different than what he has now, but when you look at the line combinations, it's night and day. Brad Richardson skated on the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown in Sutter’s first game behind the bench. Simon Gagne played left wing on the second line with Mike Richards and Trevor Lewis, and Penner was on the left side with third-line center Jarret Stoll and Justin Wiliams. Oh, and Kevin Westgarth was still a regular member of the fourth line.
After: Gagne is long gone after suffering a concussion the day after Christmas, Williams has found good chemistry with Kopitar and Brown up front, Richardson is using his speed on the fourth line, Penner is finally proving to be a top-six forward on a second line with Richards and trade-deadline acquisition Jeff Carter, and two rookies called up in early February, Jordan Nolan and Dwight King, have proved to be valuable additions on the wing. Not only that, but another rookie, defenseman Slava Voynov, has more than picked up the slack for Jack Johnson, who went to Columbus in the Carter deal. Oh, and Westgarth has been a healthy scratch since mid-February.
Quote: “A significant difference in your personnel seems to affect your team,” Sutter said. “It makes a big difference in how you change the way you play.”
Before: Brought over at the trade deadline in February 2011 to give the Kings some extra push in the second half of the season, Penner never played to expectations, even showing signs that he wasn’t trying very hard. That trend continued into this season. He spent two stints on injured reserve and had not scored a goal by the end of November. His performance got so bad, Sutter sat him down as a healthy scratch for five games in February.
After: Nobody’s ready to nominate Penner for the Conn Smythe Trophy, but he has been one of the better players for the Kings in these playoffs. He has two goals, four assists and a plus-5 rating in seven games, and hasn’t been timid about throwing his 240-pound frame around. Though he went a bit overboard with his physicality in Game 2, nobody’s complaining. Penner, to his credit, has been battling some personal issues during the season, most notably a divorce filing by his wife.
Quote: “It’s just one of those things,” Penner said of his struggles. “You have to keep on believing that there are going to be better days ahead, even if it doesn’t look like it.”
Before:: Before there was Carter, there was Richards. Brought over from the Philadelphia Flyers in a trade last summer, he was expected to do what Penner didn’t do and lift the team past the first round of the playoffs. Everything was going according to plan, maybe even better than expected, when Richards scored nine goals in November. But the day the calendar turned to December, Richards suffered a concussion against the Florida Panthers and missed the next three weeks. After his return, he was hardly the same player. During one stretch, he went 25 straight games without scoring a goal, including the entire month of February.
After: Richards began showing signs of returning to his old self in the closing weeks of the regular season, getting two goals and three assists in the final five games, which assured the Kings a playoff spot. Like Penner, he has two goals and four assists in the playoffs and has been a nuisance on both ends of the ice. He continues to inspire his teammates in other ways too, such as jumping in to fight T.J. Oshie late in Game 2 after Oshie laid a hard hit on Penner.
Quote: “Everybody is doing a good job of pushing each other to play better,” Richards said. “That’s when you have a good team, when you’re pushing the guy next to you and the next guy beside you is pushing you too.”
Captain Crunch Time
Before: As the trade deadline approached, the biggest mystery wasn’t so much who might walk in the door, but who might walk out. There was a lot of speculation that Brown would be packing his bags after six-plus seasons with the Kings, and those rumors made it to his ears. Like Richards and Penner, the team captain had his own baffling stretches of offensive ineptitude. He had five goals when Murray was fired Dec. 12, picked up the pace after Sutter arrived, but then went silent again in late January, going 11 games without lighting the lamp. It was during that stretch that the trade rumors really began swirling.
After: The game after Carter was acquired and all seemed quiet on the trade front, Brown exploded for a hat trick in a 4-0 victory against the Chicago Blackhawks. He went on to score points in a career-high 10 straight games, a stretch that kicked off their strong finish to the regular season. His performance in the playoffs thus far has been something no one could have predicted: four goals and five assists, including four shorthanded points. He hasn’t forgotten the physical side of his game either, laying one of the hardest, cleanest hits of the playoffs on the Canucks' Henrik Sedin .
Quote: "When your name is out there, you definitely want to prove people wrong,” Brown said of the trade rumors. “At the same time, I knew I could do better than I was in the first half of the year.”