December a turning point in Kings' season
Circle Dec. 4 as the night the Los Angeles Kings turned their season around.
Maybe it's just me, but when I watched Anze Kopitar score in overtime that night against Detroit and saw the Kings' reaction at a rocking Staples Center, I remember thinking, "This might be what the floundering team needs."
"I think you're right on with that Detroit game," Kings coach Terry Murray told ESPN.com on Wednesday. "That was pretty big. You're playing against one of the premier teams in the league, and to pull that out in the end with that overtime, it was what we needed to jumpstart us. It reinforced our understanding that if we play the right way as a team and as a group, we can get some good wins here."
The Kings have gone 6-2-1 in December and now look like the team many of us had predicted to do great things this season. They just completed a tough, five-game, 10-day road trip (3-2-0) with big wins in Detroit (a 5-0 victory), Nashville (6-1) and Colorado (5-0).
"What I liked about the game the other night in Colorado was that the third period was our best period," said Murray. "That's making the right statement to me as a coach, to see these young guys dig in and play with a real purpose to their game. We played with pace and tempo against a team that hadn't been shut out all year, a team that's the top-scoring team in the NHL."
Where was that Kings team in November? The downturn last month began with a 6-3 loss at San Jose on Nov. 15, a defeat that stung and knocked the Kings back for quite a stretch.
"They came out and really took it to us and played a great game against us," said Murray. "That game really hurt us. That was a tough one to absorb."
The team would drop seven of eight games to end November, starting with that loss in San Jose. While Murray believes the results look worse than the actual effort on some of those nights, he conceded his team wasn't quite up to snuff.
"As a young group of guys, we backed off emotionally a bit, we were not quite as connected as you'd like it to be," said the veteran coach.
The popular read on the Kings from the outside was the young club was guilty of reading its preseason clippings.
"Maybe part of it was the press clippings, but part of it was that you're a young hockey club and you're going to go through these dips and these peaks," said Murray. "You have to learn to deal with it either way. At the end of the day, it looks like we're a better team because of it. We've played some good hockey in the month of December and that's the bottom line. The top guys on our team are leading the way."
Heading into Thursday night's home date with Edmonton, the Kings are one point out of the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference with 39 points (19-12-1). There's a long road ahead to solidify a postseason berth -- Los Angeles is fourth in its own Pacific Division behind Dallas, San Jose and Anaheim, although the Ducks have played six more games than Los Angeles.
"The division is a hard one, for sure," said Murray. "It's going to be fun in the second half of the year with the way it's set up right now."
Jonathan Quick must continue to be dynamite; the Kings netminder is among the league leaders in wins (16), goals-against average (1.94) and save percentage (.929). There was a buzz at training camp with the arrival of rookie goalie Jonathan Bernier and Quick responded to that challenge.
"It did push Quick," said Murray. "He knew that Jonathan Bernier was coming in, and had a great year in Manchester. But I made it clear at the start of the year that Quick was going to be our starting goaltender. Quick took on the challenge. He was disappointed with his finish last year and did the right stuff during the offseason. He came into the season in terrific shape and has had a wonderful start."
The Kings are fourth in the NHL in goals-against per game, in part because of Quick, but also because the team is playing a sound defensive game in front of him and Bernier. The Kings allow the sixth-fewest shots per game in the league (28.3).
"That's the way we have to be, a good checking team," said Murray. "That game in Colorado, that was key for us. We were on the right side of the puck. Since the day I've come in here, we've really committed to being a good checking team and cutting back on Grade A scoring chances [for the opposing team]. That allows your young goaltenders to have some success."