There are lots of reasons why the Kings have won a team-record nine straight games and will be going for No. 10 Monday night in Anaheim against the Ducks. There's the stellar play of goaltender Jonathan Quick, the resurgence of Anze Kopitar and of course there's the team's secondary scoring. The Kings are one of just five teams in the NHL to have at least eight players with 10 or more goals so far this season.
And then there's the guy they call Zus: Michal Handzus, the 6-foot-4, 216-pound forward who seems to have a positive impact on the ice no matter what the situation happens to be for his team.
Handzus has eight points in his past five games and two consecutive three-point games. Yesterday afternoon against the Detroit Red Wings at Staples, he notched his team-high sixth game-winning goal of the season -- he has 15 overall, and 33 points -- by doing what he does best, hanging around the net, taking a pounding and then pouncing on a rebound that was created by the relentless cycle play of linemates Alexander Frolov and Scott Parse.
"It felt good," Handzus said after the Kings' morning practice. "Sometimes you get good bounces like last night. We're winning; we've won nine in a row, so everyone feels confident. I feel confident. Obviously you're not going to score every game, so it always feels good when you score the game-winning goal."
Handzus is reserved by nature, not someone who talks a great deal about anything -- especially if he's the topic. But his coach and teammates are more than happy to do that for him.
"Handzus is a real role model for the mindset of our hockey club," said coach Terry Murray. "He fits right into the middle of what we're trying to accomplish here with our style of play, attitude, culture, system, he cares about winning every night. He does the right things with the hard play. He knows how to take care of the detail part of the game and that's very contagious for the young guys to be able to watch when you're looking to shut down a game, what needs to be done, what the price is that you have to pay. And on the other side of it, coming to practice every day and learning your trade by doing things right on the ice and following through with the detail part of the practice."
Nice words, but Murray isn't finished.
"Young guys that are on this hockey club this year are gonna look back on Handzus two, three years from now and they're gonna be saying thank you for helping out. He's that important to our team."
Veteran forward Ryan Smyth concurred.
"Huge," he said. "Zus is very underrated in my mind. He's a great faceoff guy and that dictates a lot of the shift. And he takes a beating in front of the net. Obviously he's a bigger guy and can handle it but he's a guy that can do many things: He plays the power play, plays the PK, five on five, he goes up against the top lines so it's great to have him."
Originally picked by the St. Louis Blues in the fourth round of the 1995 draft, the Kings are the fifth NHL team for the 32-year-old Handzus, who suffered a serious knee injury early in the 2006-07 season when he was with the Chicago Blackhawks. Signed as a free agent by the Kings prior to the 2007-08 season, Handzus played every game for the Kings that year and in 2008-09, but it was clear that his mobility and confidence were far from 100 percent. It's all come together for him and for the Kings so far this season.
"I feel good obviously," he said. "We are winning so everybody has a lot more confidence. My legs feel good and that's key for me: I keep skating and if I'm skating well I play a lot better."
"He's one of the older guys on the team," said Kopitar, "and he definitely leads by example. He's not a very vocal guy or anything, but he brings to the table something every night. He's so big and strong and his down low play is unbelievable."
In what is now called the "new" NHL, players can't grab and hold and hook in the area in front of the net like they used to be able to do. So it's imperative that players like Handzus and Smyth, who make their living "down low," can do so by creating space and opportunities by sliding their bodies into advantageous positions -- and not taking bad penalties while they do so.
"He's a big strong dude, you know?" said Frolov, "and he has a lot of experience and he really does a good job to stick with the system and making smart decisions with the puck all the time. He does a great job for us on special teams as well. It's great because you know what to expect from him -- no turnovers, no mistakes, basically. If it happens, maybe just once every few games. You know what he's going to do every time, it's great. He's a strong guy and he protects the puck really well. When we play down low, that's our strength, we can do a lot of damage from there."
As for all the attention Zus is getting these days
"I can talk, or not," he said. "I don't mind. It doesn't matter. The last couple of days I do a little more interview but I'm sure it's going to slow down and obviously there's a lot more interesting guys than me to talk to."
Not as long as he keeps parking himself in front of that net and getting important goals for his team.
Jonathan Quick, after being asked if he's given much thought to the fact that he is one win from tying the club record for single-season victories (35, set by Mario Lessard in 1980-81):
"Unfortunately," said the always droll Quick, "I don't think 35 wins is going to get us into the playoffs, so I'm not really much for those kind of accomplishments. I want to get the team into the playoffs and make a deep playoff run. That's my only focus here."
And don't expect him to take any personal credit for the team's nine-game winning streak.
"I think the biggest reason we're on this win streak," he said, "is we're just playing a great overall team game. In nine games or whatever it is you're gonna have periods off, like we did that first period against Detroit. You're gonna have those kind of lapses and it shows a lot about the character of the team to be able to go through that, wipe it out of your memory and start fresh and finish the game off strong, which we did those past two nights.
"When you're winning games you're gonna feel confident, whether you're winning 6-4 like we did against Anaheim or 2-1 against the Rangers, you're gonna feel confident if the team's winning and everyone kinda feeds off it. Everyone builds off each other."
Finally, in case you missed it, Murray said yesterday that he fully expected his goaltender to be a busy man in the nets for Team USA at the Olympics. Of course, Ryan Miller of Buffalo is expected to get most of the work for the U.S. team at the Games.
Murray reiterated that sentiment today:
"Quick has played a lot of games. I think he's the winningest goalie in the National Hockey League right now. In looking at the selections of the players to all the different teams, it's the résumé you bring, the record you bring [that determines] how you are selected and to me, when I look at Jonathan and see what he's done in this part of the season, if there's an opportunity for him to play, I think he should play. There'd be no hesitation in my mind, again, based on performance to date."
"I appreciate the support that the coach has for me," Quick said when told of Murray's comments. "You know, I said from the start that they wouldn't have picked any one of the three of us if we were going to be happy to be a backup or the third string, you know? So I'd love to play, I'd love to be in there, I'd love to be able to compete for my country like that. So whatever happens, happens."
Is Murray concerned about his team, playing so well at this point, having to stop for three weeks for the Olympics and then try and pick it back up again in early March?
"It's a league break," he said. "Everybody's gonna be on the same playing field, same time off, you get five to six days of practice to get reorganized and get your momentum back, your intensity back and we'll deal with it. Would I prefer to keep going? Sure. When you're on a roll you'd like to just continue to play games and build off that momentum, but we've had a very compressed schedule, we've played a lot of games in a short period of time here. And I think with this scenario, when we're all going through the same scheduling, the rest would be good for our players."
Smyth on the concern that the team may be peaking too soon:
"You can't think that way. There's no room for error now. Teams are too tight, too equal, the parity around the league is phenomenal and that's great for hockey, right from the beginning of the year to mid to the end. By no means are we in the playoffs right now. We're in a playoff position right now but we still got lots of games to play and other teams are going to be fighting tooth and nail to get in too. So we don't take any night for granted. It's important that we learn. Every day we improve and if it so happens to be a streak right now, great. But we build confidence in this locker room that can develop further down the road."
And finally, one last postmortem on the deal that sent Ilya Kovalchuk from Atlanta to New Jersey last week, a deal that the Kings could have made if they'd been willing to do the one thing that GM Dean Lombardi vowed he'd never do: part with any of his "core" players, like Wayne Simmonds, Jack Johnson, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown and Kopitar.
Simmonds, Johnson and Brown were all mentioned by a high-ranking team source as being among the three players that the Kings would have had to give up in order to get Kovalchuk. In the end, the deal never happened because Lombardi meant what he said.
"It's a very sexy deal to make," Murray said. "Dean is a man sticking by his decision that he made two years ago. That's what I admire about this decision. It's always easy to tear things down and to go another route. That's the easy way to do it. The hard decision is making the commitment to your team, we're gonna do what's best for the Los Angeles KIngs organization and that's what has been done here.
"There's not really a wrong way or a right way. No one's smarter than anybody else when it comes to building teams, it's our way of doing things, it's Dean's way of doing things. This is the process we talked about in the interview that I had whenever the job opened up. This is how we plan on going about business. He's staying with his decision and everybody in the organization is on board with that, meaning ownership, obviously the management people and the coaching staff and that was a big part of the enthusiasm that I had when I got this job was the fact that we were staying with the younger players, we're going to bring them along the right way, we're going to lose together, but we're going to learn how to win together. And this group has battled through a lot in a year and a half, there's a lot of years together in front of them and I admire his decision."
Neither Brown nor Matt Greene skated today. "Just a therapy day for both," said Murray. "They'll be ready to go tomorrow."
Speaking of tomorrow, I'll be at Honda Center for the team skates in the morning and will have updates on both teams before the game and a story from the game tomorrow night.