Wednesday December 23rd, 2009

Don't go crowning them quite yet, but through the first half of the season, the Los Angeles Kings look like they're finally ready to reign. Sitting in fourth place in the Western Conference, just four points behind leader San Jose, they are on pace to finish the season with 104 points, which would be their highest total since 1974-75. In the process, they have quietly become the league's biggest surprise to this point.

Even coach Terry Murray will admit they'e exceeded expectations.

"Realistically, did we think we would be where we are at this Christmas break? I don't think so," he says candidly. "But I don't think we would've guessed that far behind where we are right now."

Where they are is in the heart of the playoff picture, a relatively foreign place for a franchise whose optimism generally maxes out at eighth place. The Kings haven't made the playoffs since 2002, but there is reason to believe that their fortunes will change this season. Of course, they are one of a handful of teams reaping the benefits of dismal seasons past. Having stockpiled talent for years, the Kings are seeing their high draft picks finally germinate and achieve at a level that makes the team look like it has the talent, and the will, to stick around.

The Kings are playing a better all-around game that stresses strong two-way effort. They've been able to win tight games, hold one-goal leads, do all the things that previously seemed to elude them and make an impression in the tough Western Conference. They even sat alone in the top spot, albeit only for two days.

The rise of the Kings probably started last January, when the young team really began to make sense of the checking part of their game. "Last year, it was something that we really hit on almost every day in meetings and in practice because the statistics from the previous couple years showed there were a lot of goals-against and a lot of great scoring chances-against," Murray says. "And in order to be any kind of a team and to win in this game, you have to know how to play without the puck."

If that meant sacrificing some offense for the sake of more fully developing their young players, then that was something the Kings had to do. Take Anze Kopitar for example. The superbly skilled center, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2007-08 with 32 goals and 77 points, saw his totals dip last season. "To me, that's because of the focus he put on the checking part of the game," Murray says. "He wanted to get better. He wanted to learn how to do it so that he could prepare himself for his future as a player in this league."

So after tuning up his defensive game, Kopitar now finds himself on pace for career-high 36 goals and 84 points. Perhaps more importantly, he's finally made it to the plus-side of the plus-minus equation, holding on at +3. Certainly, he's benefited from having Ryan Smyth on his wing this season.

Smyth's grinding game -- the battling, puck-possession skills he brings -- had a huge impact on Kopitar from the start of training camp. Understanding what areas of the ice to be on, reading rebounds and fighting for loose pucks, Kopitar has been positionally better in every way, and that has translated directly onto the score sheet.

"He really caught on fire, my goodness," Murray says. "[Kopitar and Smyth's] line was probably, in my mind, the best offensive line in the league, and still Kopi was playing very well without the puck on the checking side."

After installing a tight defensive system, Murray, L.A.'s second-year coach, has let the talent on his roster do the rest. The Kings, after finishing last season dead last in even-strength goals, now rank sixth, and they haven't lost a third-period lead all season. (For perspective, last season's Kings ranked 25th in winning percentage after taking a lead into the third period.)

Of course, they've been fortunate, as well. Despite hits to their depth (Smyth, for one, missed 15 games with an upper-body injury, and defensive stalwart Rob Scuderi missed nine), the Kings have hung tough. And while they sat out this week (due to a scheduling quirk, they were given eight days off), they got some early Christmas gifts as several Western teams uncharacteristically dropped games to Eastern foes, helping the Kings retain their place in the standings.

Of course, It remains to be seen if the Kings will hold court as well during the second half of the season, but with the systems (belief, as well as hockey) that Murray has put in place, they finally have enough going for them to reach the next level.

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