The LA Kings took the ice at the Warrior Ice Center in Boston shortly before 11:45 a.m. and got in some good full-team work in advance of the final game of the six-game road trip. There were no line rushes. Jeff Carter watched from the bench and did not practice. Jonny Brodzinski is getting closer but still needs to get into several more practices with contact. “Yeah, he’s a little bit ways away, and he hasn’t played for a long time, so he’ll need a little bit more. He looks good out there, he’s shooting the puck, he can really shoot a puck, so it’s good,” Willie Desjardins said. I’ll reinforce that – his shot looked awfully good on Sunday.
–If you recall back to two days ago, you may remember that there’s a rotation on defense with Dion Phaneuf, Paul LaDue and Sean Walker in which two of the three will play on any given night until the team’s needs change. “It doesn’t mean those guys can’t get out of that rotation, good or bad, but for right now it’s a chance,” Desjardins said Friday.
That rotation will continue, per Desjardins, and “if we’re following exactly the rotation, it would be Walker out [against Washington on Monday].”
“We’ll keep our rotation. We talked about doing that, so we’ll go into that. Like I said, that doesn’t mean we’ll stay with that forever, but I wanted to see Walker play. I had to get him back in the lineup, so we had to do something to get him back in. But all those guys can play, and that’s the issue. It’d be different if one of them wasn’t playing, but they all can play, so we’ll just have to work it out.”
–More on Brendan Leipsic, who was every bit as good Saturday as he was against St. Louis right before the bye week(s) in a previous high-water game. Leipsic won a battle along the boards and quickly dished the puck up high to Tyler Toffoli, leading to the Drew Doughty-Oscar Fantenberg exchange on the game-tying third period goal. It was one of several sequences in which Leipsic competed well to win one-on-one battles and demonstrated the ability to find teammates through seams.
“He’s given us lots. I’ve always liked him on the power play. He’s a good passer on the power play,” Desjardins said. “To pick a guy up like that off waivers, he’s helped us.”
If you recall the earliest days after Leipsic’s arrival, Desjardins had spoken with former Kings assistant and Penguins coach and current WHL coach Mike Johnston, who coached Leipsic with the Portland Winterhawks. “I talked to Mike about him quite a bit, so I had a pretty good handle on where he was at. When we were pre-scouting too, I watched him in the pre-scouts a little bit, and I liked the way he played.”
–One of the themes that I picked up on when chatting with players and coaches before and after recent games on this trip is “resilience,” which is a nebulous word to define and one not generally associated with a 27th-place team.
But unlike a few other neighbors in the depths of the standings, Los Angeles has been playing its best hockey of the season recently and has shown off some pretty good mettle. In New York, the Kings won their first game of the season they trailed entering the third period, in Philadelphia they overcame a late game-tying goal to win at the end of a four-in-six stretch, and though they surrendered a third period lead in Boston, they were still able to earn a point in a game they trailed by two in the third period. Not pristinely resilient, but not bad considering where this team had been during some grotesque early-season stretches in which the team did not give off the impression that they were fully engaged. An observation that the team “went to sleep … and just stopped playing” entered into the conversation only two weeks in.
There are some differences between then and now. While “emotional investment” isn’t referenced semi-frequently after games anymore, the team has raised its overall compete from those episodic earlier lapses. But more than the battle-based improvements, there have been structural improvements that have lifted the team’s play. They’re forechecking better. They’re exiting their own zone cleaner. They’re working well in five-man units, something they showed early in the New Jersey and Philadelphia games. And when they’re doing that well, it fuels other parts of their game, increases their chances of winning, and makes it easier to recognize their level of competition.
Or at least that’s the sense I got from the players when asking them today, or from Willie Desjardins in recent conversations. Without stepping on their lines, here’s what they said about the team’s tactical and emotional-based improvements that have mostly been apparent during a 21-game stretch in which they’re 12-7-2.
Willie Desjardins, on where improvements have been made:
For us, one is structure. It really is pretty easy. If you have good structure, you’re going to be successful. But the key is in structure is getting into structure, so to get into structure, you have to work hard. So if you do those two things, if you work hard and get yourself back into the right place, then you’re going to be pretty successful. I think the guys have done that, and they’ve had times where they were in tough situations and they could’ve maybe let games get away on them, but they’ve battled. It’s not that guys haven’t gotten away on us, but there’s been others that we’ve battled through, so that was good to see.
Anze Kopitar, on whether the team has moved past previous challenges in “emotional investment”:
Yeah, you can tell. We’re playing better hockey now. We’re starting to just play like we did before. You can tell that this was, even before, we were putting together some good periods, but it was just very hot and cold and hot and cold and now, you know just maybe aside of the start of the third period [Saturday] and the start of the first period in the Garden in MSG, other than that I thought we were pretty good. And then of course in Long Island, but it’s more consistent is what I’m trying to say, and it’s good to see.
Kopitar, on the team’s resilience:
If you look at that way, you know those are the games that we couldn’t punch it one point or punch into OT before because for whatever reason maybe we were doubting ourselves a little bit. But now we’re finding a way to put up points. That’s essentially what it comes down to and that’s what going to be obviously the most important thing going forward.
Drew Doughty, on factors behind the team’s raised emotional component:
It’s a big reason as to why we’re playing better is everyone’s emotionally invested, but it’s also a lot easier to be emotionally invested when you’re winning hockey games, so that makes it a lot easier. You don’t want to lose any hockey games, but when you lose a game and after the game you can say that you gave everything you possibly could and every single guy on the team says they could do that, you don’t accept the loss, but you can kind of — I don’t even want to say you live with it — but you can’t get mad at everyone if they’re trying their best and they’re following the structure and stuff like that if they’re emotionally invested. That’s what we expect out of everyone every single night. The emotion has to be there every night. There’s no excuse to not have emotion. Everyone on our team has done a really good job at that this trip and, you know what? We should have a few more points than we got on this trip, in my opinion. We just need to keep going forward and get a win in Washington and it will be an amazing trip for us. [Reporter: And now that there is enough time that when you look back at some of those uglier games in the earlier half of the season, do you pinpoint what was missing back at that point?] I try to forget about that stuff. You know, it’s been a difficult year for everyone. We hate losing. We absolutely hate losing and you’ve got to remember the things you did poorly, but after that day of review, after that bad game, I just completely shove it right out of my head and get rid of it and try not to think about those things. Yeah, I guess that’s the answer.
Doughty, on emotional and structural factors the team can focus on to help win games:
Obviously the emotion is number one. We all have to have that. And then the rest of it, you know, I think a lot of our success this trip has come off our breakouts and our reloading. I think those are two of the things that are huge. I think our forwards are working their butts off. If we make a turnover in the offensive zone and the other team is trying to get out of the zone, then they’re reloading like crazy. They’ve turned so many pucks over because of that, so I think that’s one thing that we need to continue to keep getting better at and then, like I said, our breakouts. When we have smooth breakouts our D-men are able to join. You’re not wasting energy in your zone, you’ve got tons of energy to get up the ice and we can have that fourth man on the attack every time, so I say those three keys.