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Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

Kings Defy Odds With Hard Work

November 14, 2003|Helene Elliott

Hockey wisdom dictates that the prerequisites for success are depth and strength up the middle, dominating defense and a French-Canadian butterfly-style goalie.

The King lineup Thursday had no center who has scored more than 16 goals in a season. They have a defense sometimes held together by hope and adhesive tape. They've put their faith in a Czech-born goalie who was run out of Philadelphia -- for reasons that are sometimes all-too obvious -- and whose scrambling style would feature prominently in the "Don't try this at home" section of any instructional video.

Still, they're sitting atop the Pacific Division by two points, even after they faded in the third period Thursday and allowed the Maple Leafs -- who had been embarrassed by the Mighty Ducks on Wednesday -- to score three times for a 4-4 tie at Staples Center.

(Forget their official motto, "We are the Kings," and change it to "Roman Cechmanek -- every shot an adventure.")

Despite the soft goals, despite injuries that have on occasion left them looking like a better-dressed and better-paid version of their Manchester farm team, they're 4-0-1-1 in their last six games, the only blemish in that stretch besides Thursday being an overtime loss at Carolina last Saturday.

Yes, it's early. No, the Stanley Cup parade route isn't being sketched out along Figueroa. But points in October and November are worth no less than those awarded in March and April. "Maybe even more," Brad Chartrand insisted.

And while the defending West champion Ducks are still getting to know one another and the Dallas Stars can't seem to get out of their own way in a four-game losing streak, the Kings are displaying a strong work ethic that is allowing them, more often than not, to claw and scratch and find ways to compensate for the open-ended absences of Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh.

Thursday's late collapse aside, the Kings this season have been winning games they should win. That was evident when they gained seven points of a possible eight on their recent trip to Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina and Washington, and there are more than enough of those games to think if they don't let up for long periods of time and earn some points in games that are tossups or upsets, they will make the playoffs.

"We have to learn to win these games," winger Ziggy Palffy said. "It's important for us to realize this can cost us the playoffs.... We've got to keep our heads up."

They're not doing this with mirrors or magic or miracles or an abundance of flair and flash. Mostly, they're doing this inch by inch, grunt by exhausted, sweaty grunt, rebound by rebound and check by check.

They're doing it on the back of second-year Russian winger Alexander Frolov. He has found his match with Trent Klatt -- who won't be moved off the puck -- and the speedy Chartrand, and scored two goals Thursday.

They're doing it on the sheer willpower of Derek Armstrong, who became the No. 1 center by default when Allison, because of post-traumatic migraines, and then Jozef Stumpel, because of a bruised chest, were idled by injuries and has filled the role more than capably. Armstrong's goal Thursday was his sixth, halfway to the career-high he set in 66 games with the Kings last season.

The Kings should not have squandered the 4-1 lead they held after two periods, not at home. They also might later rue losing the second point they would have earned from a victory. Their penalty killing, an early weakness, still needs improvement; two of the Maple Leafs' third-period goals were produced during power plays. Their defense probably will need reinforcement from another big body over the long term, when the schedule gets busier and even the most tenacious grinders simply lack the energy to make the second and third efforts they've been making so far.

"With the team we have, we have to play so hard every night," Coach Andy Murray said earlier this week. "There's no margin for error."

They made too many errors Thursday to say they belong among the league's elite, and that's true even if upper-echelon teams such as Detroit, Colorado and Dallas aren't any better off right now.

The Kings have worked too hard, sweated too much, overcome too much adversity in the first month of the season to let the good they've done slip through their fingers. Or through Cechmanek's five hole.

Now is when they decide who they are and what they want to be: the team that has ignored doubters and banded together to outwork opponents with superior talent for so many weeks, or the team that skated off the ice knowing it could have done better. Should have done better.

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