What are the circumstances leading to the Kings’ rough go in January?
In the hallway that intersects the tunnel from the Kings dressing room to the bench at Jobing.com Arena, Justin Williams stands answering questions in front of a camera, his voice laced with a seething resolve. He uses the word “frustration” twice.
“We’re just not quite there right now, and we’re going through a funk, and we need to get out of it,” he says before retreating down the hallway towards a room the equipment staff is returning to its original condition.
Dustin Brown sits at his stall, surrounded by four reporters, patiently and thoroughly answering questions about an offensive malaise that has produced one goal in the last 236 minutes and 47 seconds.
Held scoreless during the eight-game stretch away from Staples Center, Brown remains stuck on one road point this season, a goal in the 3-2 shootout win at Anaheim on December 3. His last power play point was recorded three months ago.
“I mean, I’m having a down year, significantly, for me. I’ve got to get back on track for myself. It doesn’t lend myself just to scoring goals or getting points. It’s about my whole game,” he said. “But we’ve got a few players that are probably down on career averages across the board, minus maybe Carts and Kop. So when you’re having a few players that are struggling to find the net, cumulatively it can be tough sledding. But, again, it’s not about any one individual. It’s about finding ways – secondary scoring, fourth line goal scoring, whatever we have.”
“Finding ways” has been a significant challenge for a team battered down by a recent schedule that Darryl Sutter referred to as “brutal” on Tuesday morning.
The Kings will return home to Staples Center on Thursday night to play two games in 36 hours, facing the East-leading Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night before welcoming the Philadelphia Flyers to town for a Saturday matinee.
The stretch follows a gauntlet that stands up amongst the toughest stretches the team has endured since the 2009-10 season, the last time NHL teams faced an Olympic break-compressed schedule drawn out as long as this one.
Tuesday’s loss in Phoenix was the team’s eighth game away from Staples Center in 13 days. No other team they played over the eight-game stretch faced as compacted of a schedule, or as many games away from their home rink.
The teams with schedules nearly as demanding have also undergone losing streaks. The Columbus Blue Jackets played seven games in 12 nights, and though the team’s franchise record eight-game winning streak concluded in the front end of the stretch, the Jackets have since lost all three games in a three-games-in-four-nights slate.
The Phoenix Coyotes, who have played 12 games in 22 nights, are 5-6-1 in their schedule since January 7 – though they were able to take advantage of a wearier team in a 3-0 win over Los Angeles on Tuesday.
“We got a big advantage with the schedule with these guys playing three in four nights, and traveling last night, and having the big game on the weekend,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said after Tuesday’s game.
“We caught a team right at the right time.”
Like many Kings fans, the players aren’t looking for excuses.
“I think it’s tough for every team,” forward Jordan Nolan said. “It’s getting a little late in the season right now, there’s a lot of hockey games, and we’re playing a lot of tough teams. So I think it’s definitely wearing down not only on our team, but on every team.”
It does appear as though Los Angeles’ rugged brand of defensive hockey, coupled with the compressed schedule and clearly the toughest competition of the season has led to the recent stretch. Of the Kings’ 15 January games, seven are against teams that stood atop their division Wednesday morning.
And while last season’s truncated schedule meant a heavy assortment of back-to-back and three-games-in-four-nights sets, it was only over 48 games. Los Angeles played its 55th game of the season on Tuesday night; the 55th game of the lockout-shortened season was Game 1 of the San Jose series.
“It’s tough to play the same way every game, and that’s what we’re trying to do here. We try to play that same hard style – moving the puck, get our feet going, and it’s tough to do that every game, so we’ve got to get back to it,” Nolan said.
The physical aspect of the recent stretch doesn’t appear as demanding as the mental strain.
“We take care of ourselves on our off days, and I think it’s not our fatigue, it’s just so much game after game. You’ve just got to keep playing the same way,” Nolan said.
It is asking quite a bit for players to continue to fill up their tank every other day or every day, according to Sutter.
“We don’t lose games because of effort, I’ll put it that way,” he said. “I think you see us always push back and push through, but sometimes your top guys don’t have the energy to do it. It was evident on the power play [Monday] night. Guys like Kopi and Jeff and Drew – as much as they want to do it, it’s hard minutes for ‘em.”
These are explanations, not excuses – not that Brown was looking to shift the onus off the team.
“Everyone has the same schedules, really,” he said.
In the long run? Perhaps, even though the Kings began the season two days after the season opened and will finish the pre-Olympic schedule on Thursday, February 6, two days before 20 teams.
In the short run? Don’t expect the Penguins or Flyers to show much remorse.