We can’t say that December was all bad. If this were just a couple of weeks ago, Kings fans were pulling out their hair in utter frustration (and believe me, they were). Prior to their date with the Leafs in Toronto on December 19, the Kings were horrid in December, having gone 2-6 with one of those victories coming against the lowly Blue Jackets. Since then, though, the Kings finished out the month (and the calendar year) going 5-0-2. Two weeks ago, I was afraid to look at the conference standings. Now, I can’t wait to see them, especially now with the Kings holding first-place in the Pacific.
Los Angeles certainly got off on the right by defeating the surprising Florida Panthers to open the month. Unfortunately, the victory came at a price as Mike Richards suffered a concussion after a headshot from Florida’s Sean Bergenheim. Despite remaining in the game for a few more shifts, Richards was forced to leave the game and missed a good chunk of December recuperating from the hit. Unfortunately, with the impact Richards had made (not to mention the team’s leading goal-scorer) in Los Angeles in such a short time, his absence negatively affected the Kings.
During Richards’ absence, quite a bit had changed. After three games of dragging themselves around the ice like they wanted to be anywhere else, general manager Dean Lombardi had to face facts and do what was needed to improve his team immediately. With that, Lombardi fired head coach Terry Murray and temporarily replaced him with assistant John Stevens. This is a move pretty much all Kings fans wanted and they finally got their wish.
Despite Stevens taking over, Lombardi was already in discussion with Darryl Sutter, whom he’d work with in San Jose years earlier. Although he hasn’t coached since the 2005-06 season, Sutter was the type of personality Lombardi needed. Sutter has been notorious for being a hard-nosed type of coach who pushes his players to the brink – anything but the easygoing style the preceding Murray was known for. Some have been critical of the choice given that Sutter’s known for only short-term success. Having said that, the time is, indeed, now and it’s so far so good as the Kings were able to save face and finish December with a 7-6-2 record.
The lowest moment for the Kings came on December 17 in Detroit when Los Angeles got hammered 8-2. It wasn’t much better a few nights earlier when they were shutout 3-0 by the defending champs in Boston. There was also the aforementioned injury to Mike Richards and now the injury to Simon Gagne, who is currently sidelined with a concussion.
With that said, there were plenty of positives for the Kings in December, albeit most of them came in the latter half. When Mike Richards returned from his concussion on the 22nd against Anaheim, he didn’t miss a beat as he scored in that game as well as the next game in San Jose. After struggling early in the season, Drew Doughty found himself on a six-game point-streak once Sutter took over. Captain Dustin Brown has looked a lot stronger lately and Anze Kopitar has been putting more points on the board as of late. Even role players like Brad Richardson, Andrei Loktionov and Justin Williams are stepping up their games while Slava Voynov has found himself in a groove again.
Despite his record early in the month, Jonathan Quick has been great as always. Even Jonathan Bernier, who only played two games in December, played admirably when he was called upon.
On another positive note, the Kings were able to snap losing streaks against Chicago and Vancouver, with the latter coming from a playoff-like atmosphere last night where a lot of chirping, hard-hitting and a highlight-reel goal by Anze Kopitar boosted the team’s morale through the roof. What better way to close out the year that was 2011!
Los Angeles had their struggles early but they turned it around and learned from a lot of their mistakes. As per usual, the power play could be better but since taking over, Darryl Sutter has injected exceptional lines of communication between him and his players. Not only has this positively affected individual players but the team as a whole as Los Angeles’ shot mentality is far stronger than it was just three weeks ago.
Due to the All-Star Game, January is a bit of an abbreviated month but the Los Angeles Kings intend to strike when the iron’s hot and rack up as many points as they can before taking that break. If the last couple of weeks were any indication, January should be very kind to the Kings.
I’m excited beyond belief and it’s not even the playoffs!
Photo: Courtesy of Danny Moloshok/Reuters