The Anatomy of a Slump

The LA Kings can't catch a break, and sometimes, that's just how it goes.
TAGS: Kings, NHL, Slumps
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Before the puck drops at LA Kings home games, a person in uniform walks toward center ice. The “Hero of the Night” is usually a soldier recently returned from overseas and usually a man. He stands at attention on a red carpet rolled out just for him, and when the crowd rises in a standing ovation he waves and smiles. The players, lined up for the national anthem, might tip their sticks toward him.

Last Thursday I went to see the Kings play the Phoenix Coyotes at Staples Center. The Hero of the Night was a marine. His face was so pale as to almost look powdered under the arena lights. He never took off his dark sunglasses and his posture was stiff as a mannequin's. He never smiled. This marine, I thought, does not want to be here.

His stiff misery—and really everything else about pregame ceremonies at Staples Center that night, from the futile green lasers to the pulsing electronic music to the grumbling of Kings fans—was a perfect emblem for the Kings of the 2011-12 season. These Kings are unable to change anything. Watching them on offense is the equivalent of gripping a rail as tightly as you can and, despite wanting desperately to, not letting go for 60 tiring minutes.

The Kings are the worst offensive team in the NHL by a wide margin. They are 43 games into what feels like an unprecedented experiment in slumpology. They have failed to score goals under three different coaches (one of them a stoic, one of them interim, and the latest a reputed screamer) and probably 30 different lineup combinations. On the power play, they are impotent. At even strength, they are also impotent. None of this would be interesting, except for the fact that their impotence feels somewhat unmerited.

Going into the season, it would have been reasonable to expect a few offensive dry spells from the Kings. They are a team built from the bottom up to play defense. But it would also have been reasonable to expect them to be at the very least average offensively. They added a top tier center and a skilled scoring winger to what most hockey analysts would have called a promising core. But where there once were points for players like Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, there now is nothing. Even in a defense-minded system, 2.05 goals per game is inexplicably bad. 

Kings hockey in the 2011-12 season is  a story of winning everything but the scoreboard. Against Phoenix that Thursday night, the Kings controlled the pace of play. They skated hard and won battles in corners. They crashed the net. Even in scuffles after the whistle, Kings players seemed quicker to the shove and the trash talk. Their third and fourth lines cycled the puck surprisingly effectively. And yet nobody put the puck in the net. Dustin Penner hit the post. Justin Williams couldn't quite finish on the breakaway. Every scoring chance was stifled by Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith, every loose puck in front of the net was smothered.

The futility was palpable inside the Staples Center. Eyes rolled. Curses were muttered. Players were called bums. Yet it was not a loser's futility. Despite not having won a Stanley Cup in more than 40 years as a franchise, the Kings are not the Clippers. They possess talent, youth, and one of the league's finest goaltenders. Theirs is a slumper's futility. Take Penner, the team's biggest disappointment. When a drive toward the net failed in the second period, Penner slammed his stick hard against the glass as he skated toward the bench. (Earlier this week, he injured his back while eating his wife's “delicious pancakes.”)

Watch a typical Kings power play and you can see an entire season's worth of frustration packed into two hapless minutes. Well-timed breakout passes are intercepted at center ice. Shots from the blue line stopped before reaching the crease. If you look close, you can almost see how tightly the anxious Kings forwards are gripping their sticks. All this failure only brings on more failure. Such is the nature of a slump. What begins as something external—a run of bad luck, maybe—turns into something internal. Just like athletes in any sport, slumping hockey players begin to press; their mental, and then physical play becomes agitated. Then there is no telling where the agitation ends and the bad luck begins.

In the third period, when the arena's frighteningly large scoreboard asked the crowd to make noise, we obliged it almost desperately. Kings fans generally don't need much prodding, but there was an air of inevitable doom about. The score was 0-0 and LA’s shots on goal lead was diminishing. Phoenix was beginning to dominate the puck. Sooner or later, to no fault of his own, that puck would slip past Jonathan Quick—the goalie who has single-handedly kept the Kings in playoff contention—and the game would be effectively over. Sure, the Kings might skate with even more superfluous urgency and bring on an extra attacker. But at this point, urgency was not the problem. The problem was something deeper, something impossible to identify.

The inevitable did not happen. The game went to overtime tied at zero. I turned to my brother and said something along the lines of, “at least they'll get a point,” which is what every frustrated and cynical hockey fan says when his or her team goes into overtime. Then, 38 seconds into the extra period, defenseman Drew Doughty managed to slip a puck past Smith on a rush to the net thus—after a lengthy video review by NHL officials—scoring the game's only goal. It was a sudden and unexpected victory and it felt more like a fluke than a break-through. (Two days later, the Kings would fall 1-0 at home to the league-worst Columbus Blue Jackets). For Doughty—supposed to be one of the best scorers in the league at his position—it was the first goal in 25 games.

Walking back to our car, the best anybody could muster was a sigh. Nothing would be changed by this victory. The marine would stand as straight as ever. We would continue to grip with both hands at the iron railing. The scoring slump (was it still a slump at this point, or was it a new reality?) would not abate.


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TAGS: Kings, NHL, Slumps

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