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Kings Notebook: Ponikarovsky Returns

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
EL SEGUNDO -- The Kings went through a grueling, 90-minute practice, capped by more than 20 minutes of skating. At least one player finished with a broad smile.

Alexei Ponikarovsky, out of the lineup since Nov. 6 because of a broken finger, completed his first full-team practice on Monday and is on track to return Thursday night when the Kings host the Calgary Flames at STAPLES Center.

Assuming all goes to plan, Ponikarovsky will return to his spot as the Kings’
third-line left winger, alongside center Michal Handzus and right winger Wayne Simmonds.

Signed to a one-year contract in July, Ponikarovsky has two goals and two assists in 13 games and brings some needed size and grit to the defensive-minded third line.

``It feels good to be back and practicing with the team, because it's been a while,’’ Ponikarovsky said after practice. ``Just to get that feeling back of getting back with the guys and going through practice, it's great.''

Players such as Brad Richardson and Kyle Clifford had done a capable job filling in for Ponikarovsky in recent weeks, but coach Terry Murray said he didn’t hesitate to return Ponikarovsky to his normal spot next to Handzus and Simmonds.

``No,’’ Murray said. ``I never would take a player off a position because of an injury. That's not his fault. He's playing the game hard for the team and stuff happens. When he's ready to get himself back into the lineup, 99 percent of the time I would put the player right back at his position.’’

Ponikarovsky had been skating and participating in limited drills during toward the end of recent practices, but he was on the ice Monday without restriction and without the need for any type of brace or tape on his hand.

Barring any type of setback, Ponikarovsky will be back in the lineup against Calgary.

``He's going to bring a big body, to begin with,’’ Murray said. ``He's big, he's strong, he skates well. He was playing very responsible away from the puck before the injury. In fact, I liked his overall game very much before he was injured. At the start of the year, it's always an adjustment to come to a new team and a new system. I felt things were coming along, but a little bit too slow, and we talked about it.

``He's one of those players that is very coachable. He wants to do what needs to be done in order to help the team win, and he came right back -- in fact, the next game -- and his energy and his intensity, tempo, the things that we talked about, were much better. So he's a good player for us.’’


Willie Mitchell lost his training partner on Monday. Mitchell, out with a broken wrist, had been skating with Ponikarovsky after recent practices, but the Kings hope that Mitchell will be following Ponikarovsky back into the lineup soon.

Mitchell still needs to be medically cleared -- which could happen in the next day or two -- and would need at least a couple days of practice before he could play.

Murray ruled out Mitchell for Thursday’s game and indicated it was highly unlikely that Mitchell would play Saturday when the Kings host the Minnesota Wild.

``I don't think so,’’ Murray said. ``I don't want to push a player out (of the lineup), because I don't know what the opinions of the medical people are right now, but I've always kind of had the feeling that he was a week behind Poni.’’


If Ponikarovsky returns on Thursday, the Kings will have four fourth-line players -- Kyle Clifford, Brad Richardson, Kevin Westgarth and John Zeiler -- to choose from.

It’s unlikely that either Clifford or Richardson would leave the lineup, so the choice probably comes down to Westgarth or Zeiler on the right wing.

It’s likely, at least in the short term, that Murray could rotate Westgarth and Zeiler based on need, with Westgarth playing games in which Murray feels the need for a ``heavyweight.’’ Zeiler has played limited minutes in his three games with the Kings, but he drew praise from Murray on Tuesday.

``His first game, I thought he played very well, with his energy and his forecheck,’’ Zeiler said. ``He did everything we would want a player to do in that situation. I know he didn't get a lot of ice time the other night against Detroit. They're one of those teams where you have to adjust your lineup very quickly, and kind of shorten your bench very quickly against, but I think Zeiler has done a good job in providing the energy and the physicality.

``It's an on-the-puck, hunt-people-down kind of an attitude, and at the same time, playing center -- which was the first time I've had him at center -- I thought he adjusted to that position very well.’’


The Kings are scheduled to practice tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Toyota Sports Center in El Segundo.
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