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Free-falling Kings have work cut out in Phoenix

by Jerry Brown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Welcome to a ride on the Los Angeles Kings roller coaster.

The Kings started the season on a major high, winning 12 of their first 15 games and zooming to the top of the NHL standings. Just as quickly, they plummeted back to earth by losing seven of eight games to end November.

December saw another surge upward, when the Kings won nine of 12 and pushed back into the top four of the Western Conference by Christmas. But since then, the roller coaster has headed down again and seemingly has yet to reach bottom.

Thursday’s 2-0 shutout at the hands of Phoenix in Los Angeles was the Kings’ 10th loss in their last 12 games -- they have collected just four points over that span and free-fallen from fourth to 12th in the West. Now they return to Arizona tonight -- where this nasty run began with a Dec. 28 loss to the Coyotes -- to seek success in a city that has been a chamber of horrors and against a goalie who’s had their number.

Even in good times, playing the Coyotes has been bad for the Kings. Thursday’s win was Phoenix’s fifth straight over Los Angeles and the Coyotes are 16-5-2 in the last 23 meetings against their Pacific Division rivals. Things are even more one-sided in games in Arizona, where the Coyotes have been a dominant 24-7-2 in 33 games against Los Angeles dating back to 1999.

Making matters worse, the Kings on Saturday will likely be facing Phoenix goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, who has owned the Kings. Dating back to his days with the rival Anaheim Ducks, Bryzgalov is 14-4-2 against Los Angeles and has been particularly suffocating in the last 15 games, going 12-2-1 with a 2.06 goals-against average and three of his 19 career shutouts, including Thursday when he stopped all 36 shots. The Kings aren’t scoring against anyone right now, having scored just one goal in the last 172 minutes and 30 seconds over three games, all of them losses.

“Obviously the confidence is not the highest, but it is what it is,” Kings forward Anze Kopitar said. “You go through stretches like this and you have to find a way to get out of them. We found a way to get out of one earlier and we’re going to find a way to get out of this one. I thought we were doing some good things (Thursday) we have to come out (tonight) and win a hockey game.”

The Kings’ frustrations reached new heights on Thursday, when players, coach Terry Murray and general manager Dean Lombardi all vehemently questioned the referees -- and in Lombardi’s case, NHL operations chief Mike Murphy -- after Phoenix’s Martin Hanzal put a goal past the Kings that they felt was unquestionably a high stick. Lombardi apologized for his attack on Murphy but was fined $50,000 by the League on Friday for his outburst.

Meanwhile, the Coyotes have won seven of 11 games in January and have points in nine, but they are in a battle with seven teams that start Saturday five points apart in the battle for the fourth through 10th spots in the West. A win tonight would nudge Phoenix past idle Nashville and into fourth place.

The Coyotes could get defenseman Ed Jovanovski back tonight. He hasn’t played since suffering a lower body injury on a blind-side hit from Toronto’s Mike Brown on Jan. 13. Brown was suspended three games, but he’s playing again while Jovanovski is still working his way back.

“We miss Jovo and we miss Vernon Fiddler (out week-to-week with a shoulder injury) because those are two veteran guys who play in a lot of key situations for us,” Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said.

The Coyotes won Thursday despite a season-low 15 shots, but Hanzal’s controversial goal -- even he said afterward that he expected the video review to reverse the call -- was followed 57 seconds later by Lee Stempniak’s 12th goal of the season and that was more than enough for Bryzgalov, who has recorded 17 of his 19 career shutouts since the Coyotes plucked him off waivers from Anaheim in 2007.

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