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Kings find success in a return to team basics

by Dan Rosen

Ron Hextall couldn't have been any clearer as he cut straight to the heart of what has already happened to the Los Angeles Kings in just 17 games.

"We got smacked and we woke up," Hextall, the Kings assistant general manager, told

Succinct. Honest. True.

The Kings don't want to talk about the Stanley Cup hangover, but for the first 10 games this season their play was inconsistent, somewhat erratic. They struggled to move the puck around the ice and keep it out of their net. They struggled to come down from the top of the mountain and start again as the equal to 29 other teams.

"The whole team is back and they were Stanley Cup champions," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said. "Becoming emotionally attached again I think is a difficult thing."

But not impossible.

The Kings have found themselves again and are finally getting results.

Los Angeles has won four in a row and six of seven entering its NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game presented by Coors Light game at Staples Center against the Detroit Red Wings (10 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN2). The Kings have given up just seven goals in their six wins and they're moving the puck much better than they were in their first 10 games.

They're starting to play like they did last spring, when they left the NHL in awe -- and in their dust -- in winning the Stanley Cup for the first time.

"I think it took us a little bit to realize that we are going to get everybody's best game every single night," Kings center Mike Richards told "Everybody fires up and plays their best when they play the defending champs. I don't know if we might have thought it would be easier because we were [the defending champs], but we didn't realize it would be harder game in and game out.

"You come from being so high last year and expecting to step on the ice and play that same style and that same way, but it's a little bit unrealistic. But, at the same time, the expectation has to be there that we know we can play that well and we need to get back to playing that style."

There are a number of reasons (not excuses) for why the Kings struggled out of the gate this season.

Injuries topped the list.

Willie Mitchell, a top-four defender who is key to the penalty kill, remains a non-roster player due to persistent knee problems. He has not played a game all season. Matt Greene, another key penalty-killing defenseman and a physical presence, suffered a back injury in the season opener against Chicago and may not play again in the regular season.

One game into the season, the Kings were down one-third of a defense corps that stayed healthy and consistently excellent throughout the postseason last year.

"It does change the makeup of your team," Hextall said. "It's still no excuse, but those two guys being out is a lot of minutes for us -- it's a lot of hard minutes, a lot of minutes against the other team's top line and it's a lot of minutes of the penalty kill. With that alone, obviously, you're not going to have the same team."

The Kings aren't the same team without Mitchell and Greene, but they've adjusted without them, as well as Alec Martinez, who has missed six straight games due to an upper-body injury.


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Rob Scuderi has continued to be a rock on the blue line. Drew Doughty has played more on the penalty kill than he has in any of the three previous seasons. He's played hard, physical minutes against the opposition's top players -- and he's beginning to thrive with those responsibilities.

Slava Voynov, who was Mitchell's defense partner last season, has shown his growth in not only his minutes, including on the penalty kill, but in his level of play with the added responsibilities. He's stepped out of Mitchell's shadows and has arguably been the team's most well-rounded defensemen this season.

Voynov has nine points and a plus-12 rating.

"I think Voynov may be the most underrated player in the League this year," NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes told

The Kings also have brought along Jake Muzzin, Davis Drewiske and the recently acquired Keaton Ellerby. All three have played significant minutes during this seven-game stretch and are getting more comfortable with their roles.

Drewiske has essentially taken over Greene's role. Muzzin has made good on the opportunity by using his size (6-foot-3, 215 pounds) and

his two-way ability. His ice time continues to increase -- he reached a season-high 20:53 in L.A.'s 5-2 win against Anaheim on Monday.

"It takes a collective effort to make up for those type of guys [Mitchell and Greene]," Hextall said. "No team has the type of depth that you can just pull Willie Mitchell or Matt Greene out and just replace them with one player."

The collective effort had to come from the forwards, too.

Hextall said most of the forwards -- especially top guys like Richards, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown -- simply weren't good enough at the start of the season.

"You can look at maybe Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan as guys that came right out from the start and played real well for us, but if you look at the rest of the forwards, I'm not sure if any of them would have been thrilled with the way they started the season," Hextall said. "I do think there is something with raising the banner, you're still caught in the past."

Richards said he struggled early in the season while trying to get back up to speed with the NHL after being away for so long. He had no points through the first four games and just five through the first 10, but has put up three goals and four assists in the past seven games.

Kopitar is back leading the Kings with 15 points, including six in the past three games. Jeff Carter has 10 goals and Brown is again playing his brand of hard hockey that angers the opponent, especially when he scores -- which he has done in each of the past three games.

"If you watched him play against Anaheim, it looked like it was the postseason. That's huge," Weekes said of Brown. "Everybody follows that. If he's out hitting, making plays, skating and agitating in a good way, everybody follows suit. It becomes infectious. He starts setting a tone and it helps reinforce the identity they played with last year in the postseason.

"They played a power-based game and in many ways that was the key to them winning. They competed harder. They played a stronger, man's-type game then a perimeter, junior-like, high-skilled game. I've seen signs of them getting back to that now. That's how they have to play."

However, that style only works if the Kings are ready for what the other team is going to throw at them. For 10 games this season they weren't.

They are now. They're dangerous again.

"We were back at ground zero, right with everybody else," Hextall said. "And, I think that has some type of an effect on teams; because [when] you've won there is something where you've almost got to get smacked a few times before you wake up. That is clearly, in my mind, what happened to us."


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