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It Has Been a Group Effort

Hockey: Despite slow start, Kings never made excuses and eventually turned season around through teamwork and hard work.

April 18, 2002|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Kings' season could have fallen apart before it really began, after they had won merely five of their first 18 games and Coach Andy Murray declared them "an insult to every parent that's ever taken their kid to play in a hockey game at 5:30 in the morning like their parents did for them."

They had many ways to rationalize their failures.

They could have said they missed the physical presence of Rob Blake, who was traded to Colorado in March 2001, and the power-play prowess of Luc Robitaille, who left as a free agent last summer. They could have blamed Jason Allison's rustiness after he ended a contract dispute and was acquired from the Boston Bruins on Oct. 24. They could have cited injuries to Ziggy Palffy, Mathieu Schneider and Aaron Miller.

And they certainly could have blamed the emotional blow they suffered Sept. 11, when scouting director Ace Bailey and scout Mark Bavis died aboard the United Airlines plane that was hijacked and crashed into the World Trade Center.

"We were finding ways to lose games early in the year," defenseman Philippe Boucher said. "We played a lot of one-goal games and lost."

But when they could have fractured, the Kings instead bonded to form a strong whole. They never lost sight of their potential, even when they weren't fulfilling it. "We regrouped," Murray said, "and we got our compete back."

They didn't soar for a week or two after Murray scorched their pride following a 4-2 loss at Detroit on Nov. 17. But once they learned to work with what they had instead of bemoaning what they'd lost, the Kings became a force in the tough Western Conference, finishing seventh overall to earn a first-round playoff matchup against the Colorado Avalanche starting tonight at Denver.

Allison was the lone King among the NHL's top 25 scorers, and their defense corps has no one like Blake, who can change a game with a hit or a slap shot from the point. But they have resilience, tenacity and balance, prize commodities in an era when some general managers spend lavishly on a franchise player and try to economize elsewhere.

"You certainly can't replace a guy like Rob Blake, who, year in and year out, is one of the top two defensemen in the league," defenseman Mattias Norstrom said. "But you've got to find a way to replace what he did offensively and defensively for us. In our case, it took all six of us [defensemen] to do it."

While the New York Rangers threw millions of dollars at Pavel Bure and Eric Lindros, and the Washington Capitals acquired Jaromir Jagr and upped their payroll by nearly $20 million, the Kings built an ensemble cast around players who fly just beneath the superstar radar.

Allison, Palffy and Adam Deadmarsh lack the flair of Bure and Jagr, but the Rangers and the Capitals, two of the NHL's most free-spending teams, missed the playoffs--proof that success in the NHL depends not on how much you spend, but how well you spend. After apportioning $5.5 million this year and $20 million over three years to Allison, the Kings' payroll was about $40 million, 10th among 30 teams.

"You can use the analogy of pieces of a puzzle. Everybody has their part," said forward Brad Chartrand. "Defensively, everyone's accountable. It seems like it's working out, and there's good chemistry.

"A team that's close plays for one another. You're counted on every night by guys you're sitting next to, and you want to play for them and the other guys on the roster."

Yet, it isn't quite accurate to say the Kings have no superstars.

Allison, strong and always around the puck, averaged a point a game (74 points in 73 games), a benchmark for a top-six forward. Those who know hockey rate him an elite player. Deadmarsh, acquired with Miller in the Blake trade, is dogged around the net. And Palffy scored 32 goals while playing sound defense, sometimes even blocking shots.

"Guys respond to things like that," Chartrand said. "When I saw that, I was pumped up, too....

"I'll put those guys up against any player in the league. Superstar--is that a word you can use? In our eyes, yes. They're great players. I practice and play with them every day. At the same time, they're good team guys as well. They're buying into the defensive system."

Norstrom, who has settled comfortably into the captaincy he inherited from Blake, agreed the term "superstar" is relative.

"There's only a handful of superstars in this league," he said. "We have star players in Ziggy, Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh.... It's more important what that player brings to your team. Superstar, star, franchise player, it doesn't matter what you call them."

Just call the Kings a team, not the frustrated group they were in November. To Murray, the ultimate compliment during the Kings' six-game winning streak last month was hearing San Jose Coach Darryl Sutter describe the Kings as a team that plays hard.

"When we were struggling at the start, we went back to this theme [from last season] of 'tough to play against,'" Murray said. "And we've done a pretty good job."

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