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Centers Key for Kings

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
A tightrope walker and the Kings’ offense have something in common: a desparate need for balance. The Kings had it early in the season, but now they’re wobbling a bit.

It’s said that a team’s strength is through the middle of the ice: centers, defensemen, goalie. The latter two have been there consistently for the Kings this season, and first-line center Anze Kopitar is on pace for a career-high in points.

The problem, at least of late, is what happens when you look a little deeper.
Kopitar has 41 points, but second-line center Jarret Stoll has 23 and Michal Handzus has 13.

Handzus’ role, first and foremost, is to be a defensive shut-down center on the third line, but Stoll’s production on the second line, along with wingers Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams, is highly important to the Kings’ overall offensive success.

Stoll had a great start to the season, with 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists) in his first 19 games, as did Smyth (11 points) and Williams (20 points). In the last 19 games, however, while Smyth (12 points and Williams (12 points) have been relatively consistent, Stoll has totaled only six points (one goal, five assists).

One person doesn’t take all the credit or blame for the results of a line, of course, but coach Terry Murray said he would like to see more production.

``The line, we need them to get going,’’ Murray said. ``That line played very well for us at the start of the year. We're getting ourselves, I think, in so tight sometimes, in that offensive zone, that it's near-impossible to generate the stuff we're looking to try to do.. You (face) that five-man attitude -- same as we have -- with the home plate, everybody back, collapsing and protecting the front of the net area.

``Once you get in there offensively, and start to do things with possession of the puck, you're playing 3-on-5. That's hard. You're going to find a way, sometimes, to make it happen, but if we get that loosened up, let's not forget about those two guys at the blue line. Let's pull away and loosen up and spread the ice out a little bit. We can find some more opportunities, in particularly speaking of Jarret because of his shot mentality.’’

Because of his strong start, Stoll is still on pace for a 50-point season, which would be his highest mark since the 2005-06 season with Edmonton, but at the start of the season, Murray challenged Stoll to shoot more, and he wants to see that look again.

``That's one of his trump cards, is shooting the puck,’’ Murray said. ``If we can get him away from all that traffic and find him in those seams, those high seams, I think more stuff would open up. That was the message we had in our review (Sunday) morning, in the team meeting.

``I think that will generate more offensive play, more offensive opportunities.
The other part you have to do, off of that though, is get to the net more consistently with a net presence. We let Niemi see the puck far too many times
(Saturday) night.’’


Murray said Jonathan Quick will get the start in goal when the Kings face the Chicago Blackhawks tonight. Quick is 0-2-0 in two starts against the Blackhawks this season but allowed only five goals in two periods, stopping 42 of 47 shots.


Drew Doughty is averaging 25 minutes, 39 seconds, of ice time per game this season, up from last season’s average of 24:58. Only six players in the NHL -- all defensemen -- are averaging more ice time per game than Doughty this season.

In tight games, Doughty regularly plays 28 minutes or more, and Murray said he’s comfortable with that number and with Doughty’s ability to handle big minutes.

``He's up around 28 minutes, and that's where we want him to be,’’ Murray said.
``Can he handle those minutes? Yeah, sure he can. He's such a gifted player that when you're out in those situations, for those many minutes, you just learn how to play the game. You're not going to be 100-percent intensity. That's to be expected.

``You pace yourself at times. As long as your timing is good, away from the puck or going to get pucks with intensity and moving in the right way, those defensemen can play, every game, 30 minutes, 28 minutes, without any problem. We saw (Chris) Pronger over the years here. There's a style, a way of doing it.’’


All three Kings prospects in the World Junior Championships remained in contention for medals heading into Monday.

In Monday’s semifinals, the United States (with Derek Forbort) was scheduled to play Canada (with Brayden Schenn), while Russia (with Maxim Kitsyn) was scheduled to play Finland. The gold- and bronze-medal games will be played Wednesday.

Schenn entered the games as the tournament’s leading scorer, with seven goals and nine assists in five games.
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