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The Inside Track | Xs and O's

Murray Is Certainly Most Valuable King

October 19, 2002|LONNIE WHITE

"You know when you play the Kings, they're never going to give up," Colorado goaltender Patrick Roy said.

If the Kings are to break through and advance beyond the conference semifinals, they will accomplish it not because they have the most talent but because they are one of the best-coached teams in the league.

Coach Andy Murray strongly believes that the NHL's elite are the teams that work hard and play together every night. It's a simple philosophy but one that takes awhile to get used to.

This Vince Lombardi approach to coaching has been working for Murray, who will take his 3-1 Kings into tonight's game against Vancouver at Staples Center.

Now in his fourth season, Murray and his assistants have used a system that combines aggressiveness with responsibility to make the Kings competitive with more talented teams. It's rare to see a King who does not understand his role, and it's that type of accountability that has led to implicit trust.

Players trust coaches. Coaches trust players. Players trust each other. On the ice, the Kings seem to know where everyone is.

Blind passes that used to end up as turnovers are now leading to goals. That was the case Wednesday night in the Kings' 4-2 victory over the Mighty Ducks at the Arrowhead Pond.

With the score tied, 2-2, in the third period and momentum on Anaheim's side, thanks to a goal by center Steve Rucchin, Mikko Eloranta, Jason Allison and Ian Laperriere teamed for a Murray-style goal to give control back to the Kings.

Laperriere got the play started by picking up a loose puck in the Kings' zone and passing up ice to Eloranta, who skated from in front of the team bench to the other side of the rink. Allison, making a head's up move, jumped over the boards into the play, replacing Brad Chartrand, who skated to the bench.

Duck defensemen Fredrik Olausson and Vitaly Vishnevski failed to notice Allison's quick line change and skated toward Eloranta, who made a no-look pass to Allison for the game-winning score.

It was the type of goal well-coached teams make.

"The Kings are able to skate around fast and create a quick tempo, but they always have sight of their positioning," said former King forward Jim Fox, a veteran color analyst for the team's telecasts.

"Everything starts without the puck and the Kings have been able to break the ice down into three main portions. They defend the offensive, neutral and defensive zones equally."

Although four games in October have never translated to a Stanley Cup in June, the Kings have made a statement with their strong play. They opened with impressive home victories over Phoenix and the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, followed with a tough road win over the Mighty Ducks and a home loss to Colorado on successive nights this week.

The ability of the Kings' underrated defense, led by captain Mattias Norstrom, to move the puck quickly to open forwards near or in the neutral zone has been a major strength.

"Coaches always say that they play defense to create offense and Andy's system incorporates that more than others," Fox said. "In the defensive zone, the Kings like to play their forwards really high, not only to get tight coverage on the point but to also create room offensively when the Kings have the puck."

Even though the Kings lost to the Avalanche on Thursday, 4-1, they were not beaten at full strength because forwards Ziggy Palffy and Bryan Smolinski did not play because of injuries.

To make up for their lack of a dominant player, like Peter Forsberg, Mario Lemieux or Nicklas Lidstrom, the Kings execute little wrinkles that give them an edge.

"The Kings are able to cut down the room opposing teams have to operate with the puck and they do this with strong backchecking by their forwards while having their [defensemen] stand up," Fox said. "A lot of teams try this but the Kings do an excellent job of closing the gap on both sides."

Another sign of good coaching is player improvement.

And the Kings have had plenty of that under Murray.

For every veteran like Steve Heinze, who failed to produce and is now in the minors, there are two like defensemen Jaroslav Modry and Mathieu Schneider, who have gone from journeymen to quality players in less than three years.

Modry and Schneider are not alone. Felix Potvin, Adam Deadmarsh, Eric Belanger, Laperriere and Eloranta are just some of the players playing the best hockey of their careers under Murray.

But he hasn't done it alone. Assistant Mark Hardy played a major role in the development of Modry, Heinze and Philippe Boucher (signed to a multiyear free-agent deal with Dallas during the off-season). Assistants John Van Boxmeer, former coach of the Long Beach Ice Dogs, and Ray Bennett have been solid in working with the players individually.

No matter how well the Kings play as a team, however, they will not be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender because their overall talent level is a notch below that of some other teams.

Still, the most talented team doesn't always win the Stanley Cup.

Murray knows this as well as anyone and that's why he stresses preparation.

"One thing for sure is that the Kings will never lose a game because they are not ready to play," Fox said. "It's a great thing to see because that's the way hockey is supposed to be played."

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