By Craig Schrader • KingsNewsDaily.com •
When watching the Kings over the last 15 games, where they have proceeded to win 11 contests, scoring 51 goals while surrendering only 32, you get the feeling that the players realized they needed to reinvent themselves, becoming a more offensive team in the wake of the loss of key defensemen Willie Mitchell, Matt Greene and the previously temporary absence of Alec Martinez. But even they couldn’t expect the depth of the extreme makeover that they are in the midst of pulling off.
Last year, the first of many season-shifting moments occurred on October 25 versus eventual Stanley Cup Final opponents, the New Jersey Devils. That game turned out to be a momentum killer and the albatross that would forever weigh heavily on the brain of then head coach Terry Murray, who in retrospect, made a really bad career choice. It was Murray’s highly questionable decision to sit and rest Jonathan Quick just two days earlier (as he was vying to continue his run at breaking a league-record consecutive shutout streak after blanking the Dallas Stars 1-0) that most observers agree prompted the team to spiral down the frozen staircase.
Quick had stymied three teams in a row by smothering a perfect 83 shots on goal during his flawless stretch. But even with a couple of days off, Murray stubbornly stood by his preseason “penciled” schedule and he kept his verbal promise to backup goalie Jonathan Bernier, telling him he would start against New Jersey. Bernier, whose only other performance to that point was a shaky 4-2 home loss to the Buffalo Sabres in his season-debut, didn’t make Murray’s decision look any better as he found himself on the opposite end of a shutout, losing to the Devils 3-0 at home.
It was the type of situation that would leave many Kings fans reaching for their favorite 80 proof bottle of libation to numb the “what could have been…” resentment aimed at Murray for being the Grinch That (Might Have) Stole Goalie History. If Murray wasn’t a drinker beforehand, I imagine he became one after that long, puzzling evening.
The team looked like it was heading to their favorite golf courses come April, losing the next seven of nine contests after the loss to the Devils. During the following few months, the Kings endured two 5-game and one 4-game losing streaks, as their offense all but disappeared. Murray was axed by game 59 and replaced by a thought-to-be gruff and bitter Darryl Sutter. And, as we all know, Sutter came prepared for change and revamped his own style, becoming the muttering, volatile, yet parental drill sergeant you couldn’t help but love. What transpired after Sutter’s arrival ended up making Los Angeles hockey history forever.
There was plenty ‘o’ bubbly to be sipped…or chugged… by all.
This season, the team’s serendipitous moment appears to have been disguised in an agonizing loss to perennial powerhouse Detroit 15 games ago, on February 1o. The defeat left the team with a disappointing 3-5-2 record and a dismal eight points out of a possible 20, as the defending Stanley Cup Champions flirted with occupying the basement floor of the league. They were a miserable 9.2% on the power play, (5 out of 46), and equally inept shorthanded, (9 goals allowed out of 44 kills), at 79.5%. But in the aftermath of that tough defeat, as Detroit defensemen Jonathan Ericcson scored the game-winner with 5 seconds left — less than a minute after Martinez tied the game with his only goal of the season - center Anze Kopitar thought he had reason to load his freezer with some of last year’s leftover Stanley Cup champagne for future consumption.
“That was our best game of the year,” he said, as reported by ESPN after the game. “Playing like that, you’re going to win more times than not.”
Well, Kopi is turning out to be prophetic, huh? Because, ever since that heartbreaking defeat which saw the Kings dominate the Red Wings for 59:55 minutes, the team has been playing their best game of the season almost every night, winning eight out of their last ten. During this latest metamorphosis, the team has converted 24.4% on the PP and thwarted 83% of their opponent’s man advantages. Oh yeah, they also have been great at home, giving the Kings an early and rare 8-2-1 record at the (now) friendly confines of Staples Center.
Like any of this matters to coach Daryl Sutter, “You know what, I couldn’t care less about it. The way the schedule is, I don’t know if we’re at home. I thought it was an afternoon game,” mocked Sutter, looking at his shoes, as he said to reporters after the Kings impressive 6-2 shellacking of the Calgary Flames, in the first of an even-more-rare back-to-back home games against the same opponent. “I…figured I had to get there before we set the clocks.”
This team has its swag back. But Sutter never lost his…or his vision of this current Kings team, which now aspires to be more offensively impressive with the call up of the top Kings prospect, forward Tyler Toffoli.
“Got lots of work to do. As a team, you know what? Individually we’ve got lots of improvement to do if you break it down by position, by who plays with who, all those things. We’ve got lots of work to do,” Sutter said.
No comment was available as of yet from Sutter or Lombardi about how the team plans to use Toffoli and/or whom he will be replacing in the line up. The blogosphere in the Kingdom blew up as soon as the announcement was made, creating rampant speculation as to why Lombardi decided to go against his stern mantra on keeping prospects in the minors uninterrupted for the entire season.
The 20 year-old upstart Toffoli ranks second in the American Hockey League with 28 goals scored and second on the Monarchs with 48 points (28-20=48; +20). The 28 goals lead all rookie skaters.
Does anyone know what time it is? Time to take a shot of whatever and have your beer-back ready, because we could be celebrating good times the rest of the way in anticipation of another Stanley Cup run.
Stay thirsty, Kings fans!