Sunday, April 18, 2010
Kings eventually thrive after changes
By Arash Markazi ESPNLosAngeles.com
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- As Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar stood outside the Kings' locker room in front of a television monitor and watched his game-winning power-play goal in overtime to give the Kings a 3-2 win against the Vancouver Canucks and tie their Western Conference series at a game apiece, he simply smiled and said, "Lucky."
He knew he had shot the puck, and he knew his teammates celebrated soon after, but what he didn't see was the puck go off the knob off Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo's stick and ricochet into the net.
"I know it's cliché to say," Kopitar said after his first playoff goal. "But put the puck towards the net, and good things will happen."
Good things finally happened to the Kings, who won their first playoff game since 2002, despite making what coach Terry Murray called "drastic" changes to his lineup before the game.
Murray made so many changes during Saturday's morning skate that he wasn't quite sure where to begin when asked about the thought process behind the moves.
"One at a time?" he asked.
Dustin Brown of the Kings reacts after Fredrik Modin's second-period goal put L.A. in the board in Game 2.
Unhappy with his team's forecheck and offensive output during its 3-2 overtime loss in the playoff opener Thursday, he benched first-line winger Justin Williams, third-pair defenseman Randy Jones and fourth-line enforcer Raitis Ivanans.
Scott Parse and Rich Clune were the replacements up front with Peter Harrold substituting for Jones along the blue line.
It looked like a train wreck early. The Kings might have outshot the Canucks 8-4 in the first period, a major upgrade from the 17-6 disparity in Game 1, but it hardly mattered as the Canucks stormed to an early 2-0 lead. Vancouver scored twice in a span of 2:16 midway through the period when Steve Bernier scored on a power play and Mikael Samuelsson scored on a long-range wrist shot that beat Jonathan Quick at the 9:49 mark.
Suddenly the gritty Kings, who fell half a puck short of beating the Canucks in Game 1 when Jack Johnson's potential overtime winner was barely swatted away by Luongo, were getting run off the ice. Worse yet, Quick, who saved 41 shots in his first playoff game and hadn't won a game since March 22, had given up two goals on the first four shots he saw, including Samuelsson's soft goal, which was the third in the series for the Swedish winger.
Murray, who looks and speaks like a college professor when talking about the game, never doubted the changes he made as he watched the first period unfold. He saw enough in short spurts to know it was only a matter of time before things would eventually click. It might seem like an optimistic viewpoint, but the statistics back up Murray when he says he likes his team's ability to come from behind and find ways to win the road.
The Kings set team records in road wins (24) and road points (51) while falling one game short of the longest road winning streak (7) this season. They also tied for second in the league with eight wins when trailing after the second period and are a 25-10-9 in one-goal games. This is a team that simply wants to hang around whether they're at home or on the road before going for the kill in the end.
"That's been one of our trademarks all year long," Murray said. "Our team has shown great grit over the year. To me, in the National Hockey League, you're going to get into hard situations. You're going to be down by one or two, and you gotta find a way to dig and battle back, and that's what's critical of playing in this game. You have to have the ability to show that grit and determination to come back."
At the end of the first period Murray reminded his players they had been in this situation many times before, sometimes worse, and came away with wins and stressed the importance of scoring early in the second period. "We gotta find a way," he said. "We got to get one in the first 10 minutes and build on that."
The Kings celebrate their overtime win at Vancouver that evened the playoff series at 1-1.
Not only did the Kings find a way to get one, they found a way to get two in a span of 35 seconds midway through the period. Not surprisingly, the Kings got on the scoreboard with a power-play goal when Fredrik Modin knocked the puck past Luongo in a scramble in front of his net. The Kings have now scored four of their five goals in this series on the power play. Wayne Simmonds scored 35 seconds later to tie the score when Kopitar made a perfect pass to Simmonds, who scored on a one-timer with 8:27 remaining in the second period.
Slowly but surely, Murray's lineup tweaks were beginning to pay dividends, despite his openly admitting they were "drastic" considering how close the Kings had come to winning Game 1. He had benched a player who had won a Stanley Cup (Williams) and another with 22 postseason games under his belt (Jones) and inserted a couple of players making their playoff debuts (Clune and Parse).
As if the Kings didn't already have a problem with playoff inexperience, Murray had essentially replaced a couple of the chaperones on this road trip with a pair of kids. Well, the kids more than held their own as they played with energy and gave the Kings an extra gear they didn't have in Game 1.
Clune, a feisty enforcer who is missing his two front teeth, made his presence felt in the second period when he got under the skin of Canucks defenseman Shane O'Brien and caused him to put his glove in Clune's face during a hard check. After the penalty, the Kings would end up scoring their first goal on the power play.
The second goal came from Simmonds, who returned to the first-line right-wing role, and shined alongside Kopitar. His high-energy style and ability to stop the puck and forecheck not only opened the ice for Kopitar and Ryan Smyth, but he more than showed he is capable of scoring as well.
"Simmonds was twice the player that he was in Game 1, I felt," Murray said. "He was on the puck, he played heavier and grittier. He was just more aware of what was going on. I think the first part of the first period he wasn't sure where to go or what to do in that top line, but in the middle of the first period he was on track. I like what I saw."
One of the biggest moves Murray made, however, had nothing to do with his line changes and everything to do with realizing after the playoff opener that Drew Doughty, his 20-year-old superstar defenseman, was spending too much time on the bench. This isn't the time to be resting your best players and certainly not one who isn't old enough to drink legally.
After logging only 23 minutes 32 seconds in Game 1, Doughty played a game-high 32:56 and played the way his fans remember him playing during the Olympics. He was a force on a defense that suffocated the Sedin twins and kept them off the score sheet. After getting outshot 44-27 in Game 1, the Kings outshot the Canucks on Saturday, 32-26.
"He should play that much," Murray said. "When I looked at the time sheet at the end of the first game and he played 24 minutes. We have a premier young player here that, the more he plays, the better he gets. I believe he should be playing 30 minutes every night. Elite players do that and they find a way to get the job done."
The Kings now return to Staples Center with the experience of two overtime playoff games in Canada under the belts of their young players and momentary home-ice advantage heading into Monday night's Game 3.
"It's a huge win, especially in a barn like this," Quick said. "This isn't an easy building to play in. It says a lot about the team after we bounced back after that first loss and after giving up two goals in the first period, it says a lot about the character we have in this locker room."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.