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Thursday, October 23, 2003
Kings keep it together, despite injuries

By Graig Woodburn
Special to

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the King's horses, and all the King's men
Cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again.

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Humpty Dumpty lives!

Ziggy Palffy
Ziggy Palffy has led the Kings' battle against the injury bug.
For the second consecutive season, injuries are proving to be the Los Angeles Kings' toughest opponent. They started the season with four players on injured reserve -- promising centers Mike Cammalleri (knee) and Jared Aulin (shoulder), and defensemen Aaron Miller (wrist) and Brad Norton (hand) -- and top center Jason Allison (whiplash) and winger Adam Deadmarsh (concussion) listed as non-roster players. Defenseman and captain Mattias Norstrom suffered a chest contusion in the first period of the season opener and has been on IR since.

Yet the Kings have started the new season with a deft combination of speed, grit and skill to emerge as one of the most competitive NHL teams. They are perched atop the Pacific Division wall with a 4-2-0-0 record, which includes wins over the Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers.

But how?

The offseason addition of mercurial goalie Roman Cechmanek from the Flyers, the mixing of veteran free-agents with well-schooled younger players and the consistent performance of their highly skilled (and healthy) players have given the Kings the opportunity to win games rather than just hold on until the injured players return.

"We've had opportunistic scoring," says Kings coach Andy Murray, who has adhered to a consistent system in his five years with the team. "You wonder where we are getting the goals from, but we are getting them."

Much of the Kings offense has been generated by a unique Slovak combination of winger Zigmund Palffy (2 goals, 10 assists), center Jozef Stumpel (1 goal, 6 assists) and defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky (2 goals, 5 assists).

Palffy has taken the early lead in the NHL scoring race and Visnovsky the leading scorer among defensemen.

"Ziggy is my best friend," said Visnovsky, a 27-year-old native of Topolcany, Slovakia, playing in his fourth NHL season, all with the Kings. " I know what he thinks, what he sees, where he is skating. He knows my step, I know his step."

Visnovsky and Jaroslav Modry have taken over as the Kings' top two defensemen while Miller and Norstrom mend early-season injuries. They are also leading the L.A. power play, which ranked seventh in the league after Tuesday's games at 20.9 percent (9 for 43).

"I've played with Mo for three years, we're now playing more than 25 minutes a game," said Visnovsky, one of the most mobile defensemen in the league." I feel very good and am getting more confident."

While Visnovsky has elevated his play, Palffy is merely continuing to demonstrate he should be given some consideration as the best right winger in the game. Despite being easily targeted as the Kings' top threat by opponents last year, as L.A. suffered through its most injury-filled season in franchise history, Palffy scored 37 goals and added 48 assists.

This year, he's sporting the captain's "C" while Norstrom is out of the lineup.

"It's a new experience, I never even thought about it before -- if I could be a captain," Palffy said. "The key for me is to be a leader on the ice."

Naming Palffy interim captain was a unique move by the Kings, but it's just the latest in an eyebrow-raising series of them.

Instead of jumping into the free agent market and landing big name talent -- and big money contracts -- Kings GM Dave Taylor went to work piecing together role players who give L.A. the depth that was missing last year.

The Kings already had a top-notch defensive energy line in place with speedy Eric Belanger centering the spirited Ian Laperriere and pesky Sean Avery, the problem was the lack of a legitimate second offensive line behind whatever line Palffy was on.

Although they don't skate together, the reacquisition of Stumpel and left winger Luc Robitaille -- both who played with the team before -- and the addition of winger Trent Klatt from Vancouver provided the elements from which L.A. could assemble a solid second NHL line.

With Stumpel now centering for Palffy, L.A. can deploy a second unit with Robitaille and Klatt on a line centered by Derek Armstrong, who has made a solid jump from an extended minor-league career to the NHL.

"We were looking to get a little more balance, if you rely on one line for your scoring it can be difficult," Taylor said. "Based on the year Luc had last year (just 11 goals with Detroit) we thought he could bounce back and have a better year, he's off to a great start."

Robitaille, the all-time NHL leader in goals by a left wing (634), has already scored three goals and added three assists in this third stint with the Kings. Klatt also has three goals in six games.

"Everyone here is excited about a fresh start," Klatt said. "We're playing well defensively, when you get 20 guys buying into the system, that's where your strength is."

The Kings' early success also can be attributed to teaching that system and structure as soon as possible to new players.

"Some of the kids, even if they were just drafted (in June), spend a couple weeks here in the summer -- they understand how we want to play," Taylor said.

With Miller and Norstrom sidelined, L.A. has been pressed into moving rookies Tim Gleason and Martin Strbak, second-year blueliners Joe Corvo and Tomas Zizka and third-year defenseman Jason Holland into the regular lineup. These young defenseman, along with rookie center Esa Pirnes and 18-year-old forward Dustin Brown, are fitting right in.

"I came to rookie camp two weeks early, they pounded the system into us then," said Brown. "As young players you have to adjust to the tempo and speed, it's great to not have to worry about where you have to be on the ice, that helped me a lot."

A team that can sit atop of the Pacific Division and among the top scoring clubs in the league without the likes of Allison, Deadmarsh, Norstrom and Miller will be an even scarier opponent when those players start to return around Halloween.

"There's a little more balance in our line up," Taylor said. "Hopefully we can get everyone back and be that much stronger."

Graig Woodburn covers the NHL for the Press-Enterprise in Riverside, Calif.