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Kings still honing their killer instinct

Just yesterday, after their skate prior to last night’s game against the Colorado Avalanche, Kings captain Dustin Brown was talking about his team’s need to develop more of a killer instinct—especially at this critical time of the year.

“We haven’t had it since the Olympic break,” he said, “of either shutting a team down, or if we have a lead, going out and scoring another goal or two. We need that, offensively and defensively, to hold onto these one-goal games, especially this time of year. It’s going to get a lot tougher to hold onto one-goal games. We just need to find a way to develop that killer instinct.”

Which brings us to last night’s game, which the Kings led 3-2 with 10 minutes left in regulation after Ryan Smyth scored his second goal of the night.

That would have been the ideal time to do exactly what Brown had been talking about—pour it on, get another goal or two and put the Avs out of their misery.

Easier said than done, of course, especially when the unthinkable happened with less than 10 seconds left and Colorado tied up the game and sent it to overtime.

In other years and on other Kings teams, this might have been a disaster. But in this season and on this night, it wasn’t. With 1:20 left in OT and with the Kings on a 4 on 3 power play, Drew Doughty leaned into a slap shot from the point and just ripped it into the top corner past Avs goaltender Craig Anderson.

Disaster averted. And notch up another one-goal victory for the Kings, their 23rd of the season.

As virtually every player in the room is saying these days, sure we’d like to be scoring more goals, but winning games is the most important thing—especially this time of the year, and that’s exactly what the Kings are doing.

In the process, Jonathan Quick made 18 saves for his league-leading 39th victory and the Kings moved into a fifth-place tie with Nashville in the Western Conference with 87 points. That’s two more than seventh-place Colorado, whom they play again tomorrow night in Denver.

Which brings us back to that killer instinct thing.

Coach Terry Murray says that developing that need to put a team away sooner instead of later starts with execution by every player in both the offensive and defensive zones.

“You’re trying to encourage the players to do things right,” he said, “meaning that when the puck gets in on the forecheck and on those chips, you’re going to get it stopped. So that means the first man going in hard, making contact on the body, the stick or the hands, just to get the puck stopped so that support can arrive.”

Once that support arrives, Murray said, it’s a matter of the Kings simply getting into a rapid rhythm of doing the things that they’ve always done well this season—cycling and creating opportunities below the dots.

“That first man in is a key part of killer instinct,” he said. “And it’s the same in the other end, that communication, hard on the puck, get a contact on their player the same way, with good, close support and when you start to do that on a line to line basis, then it really starts to become a hard and heavy game and that is part of that killer instinct. You just follow through, you know you have to do that part of the game consistently to be successful and that’s the attitude that you want to have.”

Brown said it’s also a matter of certain individuals on the team asserting themselves at critical times in games.

“In every team sport that you play or watch,” he said, “there’s guys that want that ball for the last shot. Those are the type of players that you want on the ice, those guys that want to have the game in their hands, that want to be the guy.

Like, for instance, Doughty in last night’s game. He was supposed to pass the puck on the play that was drawn up by the coaches. But he realized that Jarret Stoll was covered, followed his instincts, seized the moment—as Brown had suggested everyone needed to start doing—and let it rip. And won the game for his team.

“We have a handful of guys like that on this team,” said Brown. “It’s a thing that can grow. When you see four or five guys having that killer instinct game in and game out, being in those situations. It kind of creates almost a snowball affect where other guys start to say, yeah, we gotta do this right now and it starts to grow. I think it starts with a few guys on the team and then it can grow to the whole team and that’s when your whole team has that killer instinct. That’s obviously the ideal situation.”

Brown figures that now is the perfect time for the Kings to come together as a team. With just 11 games to go in the regular season--five between now and the end of March--why not?

“I looked at the schedule the other day,” he said. “It’s like seven games in 11 days. It’s a lot of hockey but I think the players prefer that. We haven’t had a lot of games lately and I think players prefer playing every other day or whatever it is. This is a huge test for us but we’re in a good spot. We have games in hand. We need to make sure those games mean something and we have a great opportunity with a lot of games in a short period of time to jump. We have to focus in on each game individually and then take it from there. But I think it’s a good thing for us to get on the road and then play a lot of games quickly.”

And, hopefully, continue to play well.

“If things are going well,” said Murray, “you want to continue playing, for sure. You want the momentum to build. It’s what you have to do this time of year, especially with the schedule condensed and it’s very focused on the division or conference.

“We’re looking forward to the games in front of us. I think this is a great opportunity for a young hockey club to build on and get into a situation where you get into the post-season. That’s certainly what it’s all about and it’s new territory for a lot of guys. How do you respond? That’s the fun part about it. This is the best time of the year to play hockey and we’ll see how we handle it.”

So far, they seem to be handling it just fine.