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Kings Hobble Into Season but Keep Their Hopes Up

October 09, 2003|Mike Bresnahan | Times Staff Writer

DETROIT — In Hockeytown, anything less than a Stanley Cup title is considered a waste of seven months, and the definition of a long summer is a first-round playoff meltdown against a team west of Colorado -- i.e., the Mighty Ducks.

For a team that last season was driving for its fourth Stanley Cup in seven years, an early exit was unacceptable, so much so that goaltender Dominik Hasek was wooed out of retirement and prized defenseman Derian Hatcher was snared from the free-agent pond, $30-million price tag and all.

And yet the Red Wings have struggled during a 2-6-1 preseason, surprisingly lax on defense, letting third-period leads slip away and passing instead of shooting far too often on the power play.

"I'm glad it's over," Red Wing Coach Dave Lewis said.

And the Kings thought they were having a rough preseason.

Even Hasek was troubled at times, suffering uncharacteristic mental lapses.

"I have to eliminate the mistakes," Hasek told the Detroit News. "Physically, I feel much better. However, I still cannot give up [easy] goals."

The Kings begin the season tonight in Detroit with their own problems, including several injuries.

Center Jason Allison (whiplash) and right wing Adam Deadmarsh (concussion) have not recovered from injuries they sustained last season, and defenseman Aaron Miller could be out three more weeks with a fractured left wrist.

Goaltender Roman Cechmanek is coming off a two-game, nine-goal collapse in the playoffs last season with the Philadelphia Flyers. He has looked good in the preseason with a 1.28 goals-against average, and so have the Kings -- in some ways.

They scored an NHL-best 27 goals, went 5-2-1, and outshot opponents, 289-174, easily the largest margin in the NHL.

"You can say preseason doesn't make any difference, but ... the Oakland Raiders were really poor in the preseason and that's the way they've continued right now," King Coach Andy Murray said. "The Minnesota Wild last year didn't lose a game in the preseason and got off to a good start and played that way all year. I'd rather look at it optimistically and say we had the kind of preseason we wanted to have."

If not for the injury problems, it would be hard to disagree with Murray.

Allison and Deadmarsh combined for 136 points two seasons ago, and were on pace to eclipse that when they got hurt last year. They have spent the preseason skating without contact in a group with other injured players.

Their return could come as soon as next week, or it could lag further into the season. Their roster spots have been taken by two picks from this year's draft -- Esa Pirnes, a sixth-round selection, and 18-year-old Dustin Brown, a first-round selection.

Murray has moved forward.

When asked whether he felt short-staffed going into Detroit, he said, "Last time I checked, we have 23 [roster] players and that's all the league allows. We won't be short-handed at all, unless we get too many penalties."

Alexander Frolov, Jozef Stumpel and Ziggy Palffy, originally the Kings' second line, have become the No. 1 unit.

The new No. 2 line is Luc Robitaille, Derek Armstrong and Trent Klatt.

Neither line will find ample room on the ice tonight, assuming the Red Wings realize this game counts.

With Hatcher, Chris Chelios and three-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit has one of the deepest defenses in the league.

Mathieu Schneider, the second-highest scorer on the Kings last season, is now the No. 5 defenseman on the Red Wings.

"They've probably got the best defense in the league altogether," said Robitaille, who spent the last two seasons with Detroit. "It's not going to be easy."

The Kings will try to create traffic in front of Hasek and keep a tight lid on Detroit forwards Brendan Shanahan, Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Tomas Holmstrom and talented youngsters Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk.

"We've got to force them to play on their side of the red line," Murray said. "If they're playing on our side of the red line, it will be a long night."

A strong start to the season is imperative, Robitaille said.

"For us, the first month of the year we've got three games on the road and seven games at home," he said.

"It's an important stretch. If we have a great record after that, we can go" places.

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