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Inside the NHL | Helene Elliott / ON THE NHL

Reality Catches Up With Kings

March 23, 2004|Helene Elliott

There are no consolation prizes in the NHL, no satisfaction for the Kings in knowing they've been resilient and resourceful beyond all expectations but won't be good enough to grab the last brass ring in the Western Conference.

Their 2-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers on Monday took all the air out of a crowd that wanted to believe the season wasn't lost. But reality was colder than the ice at Staples Center: the Kings have lost four straight games and five of the last six. They're three points out of eighth with seven games to play -- all against teams that hold playoff positions.

"Yeah, this hurts," defenseman Mattias Norstrom said. "I don't think we've had a four-game losing streak this whole year. We've dug ourselves a hole. We're in a tough situation. But there's absolutely no one feeling sorry for us. We've got to go on the road, where we've played some of our best hockey, and just go for it.

"We've got nothing to lose. We've got to come home with eight points in these next four games."

Even if they go 4-0 on a trip that starts Wednesday in Vancouver, they'll need help from other teams. They believed it wouldn't come to that, that their grit and determination would outweigh their iffy goaltending and mediocre special-teams play.

They took it far. They just couldn't take the last, big step.

The Oilers trailed them by four points, 73-69, two weeks ago but have won five straight games and earned points in 13 consecutive games (8-0-2-3). Ty Conklin, who became the starting goaltender when the Oilers sent Tommy Salo to Colorado just before the trade deadline, came through in the clutch. They battled the Kings for every inch and prevailed on sheer will, as the Kings had for most of the season.

"It's the culmination of a lot of facets of our game coming together," Coach Craig MacTavish said. "I don't think you can figure on one reason in particular."

The same is true for the Kings' slide. They got no lift from deadline-day acquisition Anson Carter, who has been a perimeter player on a team that must grind for every goal, or from the return of Martin Straka. They were rarely awful, but they rarely got inspirational performances when they needed one, as the Oilers got Monday from the tireless Ryan Smyth.

"Probably timely scoring," Coach Andy Murray said when asked where things have gone wrong for his team, "and it's kind of both sides of the equation. The other games [that they won] we got goals when we needed to have them. We had Edmonton on the run in the third period and had opportunity after opportunity and they got the timely goal....

"We battled all year. You can look at the last four and I don't know that there's a heck of a lot of difference."

The difference is they're now playing against the odds. And it's a battle they can't win.

Steady Eddie

Ed Olczyk never thought much about life after hockey until he neared the end of a 16-season NHL career that included a stint with the Kings.

"One of my best friends, Denis Savard, is an assistant coach [in Chicago]," Olczyk said, "and I thought it would be a great way to stay in the game and be able to teach."

As a rookie coach with the financially challenged Pittsburgh Penguins, Olczyk is doing as much learning as teaching. Some of the lessons are painful, such as an 18-game winless streak in January and February, the loss of player-owner Mario Lemieux to a hip injury, and the need to slash payroll and trade Straka to the Kings.

But lately, Olczyk's teachings seem to be sinking in. The Penguins, largely a bunch of kids and retreads, are 8-2-2 in their last 12 games and have shut out Dallas, beaten Toronto by a goal and tied the Philadelphia Flyers.

"At the start of the year, we talked about our plan, the big picture, which was giving our young players a chance to play," Olczyk said. "This team works hard every night. There are some games it just doesn't happen, but what I'm probably most proud of is sticking to our plan and giving those young players a chance to play in all situations.

"The first 10 games, we were near .500 (3-4-3) and we were giving up a lot of shots. We still had Mario and we still had Marty. Then Mario got hurt and we got some other injuries and it got tough."

Olczyk has some talent to work with, such as defenseman Dick Tanrstrom, winger Aleksey Morozov and rookie Ryan Malone, a 20-goal scorer and the son of Penguin alum and scout Greg Malone. Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was returned to his junior team so the team wouldn't have to pay him a big bonus, but he was often sensational in 21 games.

"I enjoy the relationships with the players," Olczyk said. "There are three things every player wants, no matter if they play 10 games or 1,000: Discipline, structure and consistency in everything the coach does, and I think I've held true to form.... We're building for 12 months from now, 18 months from now. It's important to lay a foundation now so that players know what's expected."

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