The Kings and the St. Louis Blues played an eventful first period Tuesday night at Staples Center. The Blues took a 2-1 lead on goals from Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Sobotka and skated as if on a mission. They also were willing to drop the gloves and engage the Kings, who swept them from the playoffs last spring. There were three fights in the first period, including a clear decision for the Kings’ Kyle Clifford over the Blues’ Roman Polak. Rookie defenseman Jake Muzzin scored the Kings’ lone goal in the opening period.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter didn’t answer definitively when asked after Friday’s victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets whether the Kings’ best line was Kyle Clifford and any two teammates playing alongside of him. Sutter praised Clifford, who scored the team’s first goal and is halfway to his career high of 14 points in a season after only 12 games.
“We just need his energy,” Sutter said after the Kings’ grinding 2-1 victory over the Blue Jackets. “We need his physical presence. If you look at it, he’s not even had a shot a game and we’ve been talking to him about shooting pucks more instead of looking off (and passing). If you shoot the puck, sometimes good things happen.”
Clifford continues in his role as the Kings’ enforcer and one of their most-feared hitters, but he’s earned additional playing time because he’s been so productive. He benefited by playing several games with the Ontario Reign of the ECHL during the NHL lockout, playing on the power play at times during his stay in the Inland Empire.
“Yeah, maybe I should start the year there every year,” he joked when reminded of his play with the Reign. “I think it was good for me.”
Clifford has two goals and five assists for seven points, one behind team leader Anze Kopitar. He’s tied with Jeff Carter for second.
The Kings held a relatively routine morning skate at Toyota Sports Center this morning. Here are the line rushes:
Dustin Brown – Anze Kopitar – Justin Williams
Simon Gagne – Trevor Lewis – Jarret Stoll
Jordan Nolan – Colin Fraser – Kyle Clifford
Dwight King – Brad Richardson – Dustin Penner
Brad Richards and Jeff Carter took the optional morning off. They’ll be in tonight, but who will skate at left wing on their line remains a question mark; more on that in a bit.
The D pairs were fluid — Rob Scuderi took the optional too — but you can expect the usual configuration against the Ducks tonight in Anaheim:
Rob Scuderi – Drew Doughty
Slava Voynov – Alec Martinez
Davis Drewiske – Jake Muzzin
Richardson and Andrew Bodnarchuk are the expected scratches.
Clifford is the team leader in points, as I pointed out in my game preview. Head coach Darryl Sutter wasn’t exactly effusive in his praise of the young winger, however.
“Our left side has a grand total of two goals this year in six games,” Sutter said. “He’s got one. Brown’s got one.”
Will Clifford slot in with Carter and Richards again? “We’ll see how the game goes,” Sutter said.
The coach also attempted to temper the high expectations for Dwight King, who made a memorable impact during the Kings’ run to the Cup, but has been all but invisible this season. The second-year left wing was demoted to the fourth line this week.
“He didn’t get here until January last year and he didn’t really do much until playoffs,” Sutter said of King. “We brought him up here because the team was struggling on left wing. We brought him up here and he played in the playoffs and he played well. He went back to the American League and leveled his game out and now he’s got to get his intensity back to the NHL level.”
If Dustin Penner stays in the lineup as expected — regardless of which line — expect King to be the odd man out. For now, it seems like less a comment on any individual than on Sutter’s dissatisfaction with the left wing position in general.
Jeff Carter, a vetern forward, said new linemate Kyle Clifford benefitted from playing during the NHL lockout with the Inland Empire’s Ontario Reign. Here more from Carter about Clifford, the Kings’ resident tough guy who has found his scoring touch:
“I think it was great for him. He was here with us (skating in El Segundo) for a while before he went (to Ontario). He’s a guy you don’t have to worry about coming in, in shape and being ready to play. Maybe he played a little different role than he was here. He was used on the power play and all situations.
“I think you’ve seen his play. He’s got more confidence with and without the puck. He’s on it. He’s skating. He’s looking good. He creates a lot of room for us. I don’t know if it’s a reward or a punishment. He’s playing great. From Day 1, he’s been on his toes. He’s been making plays. He’s turning pucks over hard on the forecheck. When you do that, it’s going to get noticed, the coaches are going to notice it. He’s definitely earned his shot at playing more minutes.”
Veteran forward Trent Hunter will join the Kings in training camp on a pro tryout contract. The 31-year-old forward has spent his entire NHL career with the New York Islanders, for whom he played only 17 games last season before tearing the medial collateral ligament in his left knee Nov. 24.
Hunter can provide a physical presence from the right wing at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, but also brings some scoring touch. He had never scored fewer than 11 goals in an NHL season before 2010-11, when Hunter scored just one. In 459 career NHL games, he has 99 goals, 229 points and 201 penalty minutes.
The Kings already signed a similar player, albeit with less offensive upside, in Ethan Moreau. Forward Colin Fraser is also in the mix for a bottom-six role along with Kyle Clifford, Brad Richardson, Trevor Lewis, Scott Parse and Kevin Westgarth. Jarret Stoll seems to have the third-line center position locked down, so that means Hunter will likely have to beat out one contracted player for a roster spot.
Sunday’s Hockey Fest at Staples Center was announced as a sellout – 3,000 tickets sold. If all those Kings fans continue to show up at the turnstiles, it can be considered a success for the team’s marketing department.
In any other year that might be enough, but this time the event seemed to serve a greater purpose: It brought the focus back to hockey.
Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien, Wade Belak and the Lokomotiv Yaroslavl team — including former King Pavol Demitra –all left Earth far too soon, their abrupt and unfortunate deaths overshadowing the usual summer headlines about trades and free agents and the like.
“It was shocking,” Kings forward Kyle Clifford said. “It’s always tough to see someone go. The hockey community is one big family. You know guys who know them, or you know them, and it’s difficult. You have to pay your respects and move forward.”
Manchester Monarchs forward Ray Kaunisto shared an interesting tidbit on his blog today. From raykaunisto.blogspot.com:
This week, starting Tuesday, the Kings let us come down to Detroit to workout and shoot with some of the development guys. It is just a two day camp that shows us how to properly shoot, stick handle, and other on ice skills, as well as helping us out with learning the kings workout.
The guys here are Kozun, Schenn, Toffoli, Dowd, Clifford, Czarnik, Weal, Nolan, and Muzzin. The days consist of two off ice sessions per day and two on ice sessions per day. Everything is pretty tough to do but it makes us better really quickly. A lot of good ideas for shooting and practicing are being passed on to us this week from some really good former NHLers. As always it’s an honor to be here and be around so many world class players and coaches.
“Overtime” and “heartbreak” went together well for the Kings in this year’s playoffs. So did “Staples Center” and “heartbreak.”
“Kings” and “heartbreak”? Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
Joe Thornton’s goal at 2:22 of overtime ended the Kings’ season Monday with a 4-3 loss at Staples. The Kings finished 0-3 at home in the series, 0-3 in overtime, and finished this season right where they ended the last: Done for the season after six playoff games.
Players and coaches won’t be available to the media tomorrow, so a full-fledged “obituary” of the season will have to wait until Wednesday.
I put a request out to the Kings for comment. Like the obituary, it may have to wait.
A few factoids for now:
Jonathan Quick was going to have to steal a game or two for the Kings to have a chance at advancing to the second round.
A couple more games like Saturday’s, and they could be in business.
Quick’s 51 saves in Game 5 set a franchise playoff record and allowed the Kings to stave off elimination. His counterpart, Antti Niemi, could scarcely have been worse, allowing three goals on the Kings’ first four shots. Wayne Simmonds and Dustin Penner got their first goals of the playoffs, while Kyle Clifford got his third.
The Kings’ 52 shots allowed were also a record, but the Sharks couldn’t do much with them. One reason was the Kings’ success in the faceoff circle: 31-25 as a team, highlighted by a 15-2 record by Jarret Stoll. Another reason was the lack of odd-man rushes for the Sharks, as the Kings succeeded in plugging the holes in front of Quick.
“It was just more of a home plate attitude,” Quick said. “They kept a lot of the guys out — a lot of the shots were from the perimeter, limited their Grade-A chances from last time.”
Mostly, however, it was Quick. Acrobatic at times and always calm, he made 19 saves in the first period, 15 in the second and 18 in the third.
The series shifts back to Staples Center on Monday at 7 p.m.
A few more notes and observations:
The hashtags and catchphrases were skipping through cyberspace within a half-hour of Devin Setoguchi’s goal at 3:09 of overtime: “The Failure on Figueroa.”
After squandering a 4-0, second-period lead, the Kings’ 6-5 overtime loss in Game 3 to the San Jose Sharks can be seen as nothing less.
“We’ve got to look at what happened in the second (period), learn from it,” a despondent Kings captain Dustin Brown said, “because we don’t have the type of team that can take periods off, especially at this time of year.”
Apparently the Sharks do — a revelation that may ultimately prove the difference in the series.
Antti Niemi was pulled after allowing four goals on 10 shots, the last of which came 44 seconds into the second period on a Brad Richardson wrister.
Somehow, inexplicably, the Sharks shed the ghosts of postseasons past by scoring five goals over the remainder of the second period. Only a backdoor, breakaway tally by Ryan Smyth interrupted the onslaught and kept the teams tied at 5 heading into the third period.
“[It was] puck management,” Brown said. “We needed to get the puck deep on them. They’re a fast offensive team and we gave them chances and plays. They can find lanes and open areas to get some goals, and that’s kind of what happened with the overtime goal. They transitioned it from their end, and it was pretty quick.”
Like ripping off a band-aid, Setoguchi’s first goal of the series provided a stinging, decisive conclusion to a back-and-forth game.
The question now: How deep do the Kings’ emotional wounds run?
“It stings right now,” Kings defenseman Matt Greene said. “We got to let it go though right away. You give yourself tonight, you feel bad about it, but tomorrow’s a new day.”