A Los Angeles Kings
team enjoying its first postseason appearance since 2002 is looking ahead to the new season in search of some fantastic finishes. Or, more aptly put, finishers.
"When I think back to last year," defenseman Rob Scuderi
told NHL.com, "the thing that sticks in my head is during the regular season we had a great record after a one- or two-period lead, and in the playoffs, we let two games slip when we had a lead going into the third period. That is something you cannot do in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. If there's one thing that sticks out in my head, it's finishing a game when it counts."
After recording an impressive 29-0-2 record in games which they led after two periods, the Kings surrendered two third-period leads to the Vancouver Canucks
in critical Games 4 and 6 during their first-round loss.
"When you get into the playoffs," coach Terry Murray
told NHL.com, "you do get a real good look as to who you are and what you have. At the end of the day, we had some great opportunities to score goals, to finish, to put games away and we weren't able to do it. It came down to critical times and we weren't able to get things done. We need to find a way to score more goals at critical times, that's what we're pushing through the camp."
The handwriting was on the wall early this summer, when the organization decided to take action, entering the Ilya Kovalchuk
sweepstakes until the bitter end.
The problem at hand is a good problem -- so to speak -- for a franchise that had spent so long away from the playoffs. Now rebuilt via draft picks, a few notable signings and trades by GM Dean Lombardi, Los Angeles is buzzing again about its Kings. The need for key goals indicates that the club is playing in bigger games than it has in years.
Despite failing to land Kovalchuk, Murray says that a collection of players can provide solutions as surely as any individual star could.
"We need to produce more in the offensive part of the game," Murray said, "to score some goals, so that could be a collective thing. And that's what we're going to try to sell as coaches, that everyone step up in the offensive part of the game and collectively, (if) guys can add five goals to their production over the last year, and if we move that around to four or five guys, we've got what we need."
A key subplot during the upcoming season will be whether the rebuilt Kings, who rely increasingly on a collection of young stars, can continue their upward trajectory by maintaining focus and finding leadership as they search for bigger goals in bigger games.
"I don't think that Drew (Doughty) and I or Wayne (Simmonds) or any of the young guys were looking to the older guys to lead us through it," Jack Johnson
told NHL.com, exuding the confidence that makes him one of the League's best young defensemen. "I just think a lot of our personalities are take-charge and go-get-‘em. That's the way it's supposed to be. You're a professional athlete, you're not supposed to be looking to someone else to do the job."
Scuderi, who authored one of the biggest blocked shots in League history which propelled his then-Penguins team to a Stanley Cup championship, sees similarities in the Penguins' and Kings' respective learning curves. He points to Pittsburgh's 2007 postseason appearance, at the time its first in five seasons. Similar to LA's loss to Vancouver, his Penguins club lost to Ottawa in Round 1. Scuderi's club returned from that first-round exit a year wiser, appeared in two consecutive Cup Finals, and won a title in 2009.
He says that his Kings teammates experienced a mental shift last spring.
"I thought I saw a change in the guys individually and as a team during that playoff series last year," Scuderi said of the Kings. "(The) guys understand, ‘OK, the games really are that tight.' Every single little play matters."
Los Angeles has an abundance of prospects attempting to earn a roster spot, including draftees like defensemen Thomas Hickey
, Davis Drewiske
and Alec Martinez
; also centers Trevor Lewis
, Brayden Schenn
, Oscar Moller
and Andrei Loktionov
. Goaltender Jonathan Bernier
, who's been on the cusp of a regular NHL job since his 2007 debut, completed two seasons with AHL Manchester and Murray says that he was likely the best player in the AHL. Bernier enters camp as the odds-on favorite to win the backup job behind starter Jonathan Quick
The club has been very patient with its prospects since Lombardi's arrival during the spring of 2006, and Murray says that no one's itching to press players into action.
Murray also likes the tone in the dressing room.
"We're seeing a great step forward by these young guys who have been drafted into the organization," he said. "The elevation of the pace has been dramatic by these young guys. I love the feeling of our team in the locker room, and the way they work together and stick together."
"We're a good team on paper, and that's all we are right now," Scuderi said. "The season hasn't started yet and we have to back up our reputation now."