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J.A. Adande

Kings Get a Quick Lesson in Grinding

October 06, 2005|J.A. Adande

DALLAS — No lead is safe in the new-look NHL. And that's the problem for the Kings.

Two minutes into their opener against the Dallas Stars and the Kings were on pace to score 4,920 goals this season. Fifty-eight minutes later they were on their way to an 0-82 record.

Between those two extremes the Kings discovered an overlooked truth that has been lost amid the dramatic revamping of the league following the season-long lockout: the little things still matter most. That's why they lost, 5-4, leaving Andy Murray to utter the timeless lament of hockey coaches on the wrong side of the score, the same words we've heard regardless of the rules: "I just thought we got out-battled tonight."

Even with the game legislated back to the free-flowing ways of the past, it still comes down to mucking and grinding. But the early offensive outburst sure was fun to watch.

Who filled the nets? The same guys who filled reporters' notebooks throughout the preseason: Jeremy Roenick and Sean Avery. When the best talkers can also get goals, that's a good thing.

Roenick, in a Gretzky-esque moment, scored on his first shot as a King after one minute of action.

Avery followed up 30 seconds later when he knocked down the puck and batted it, baseball-style, past Marty Turco. Then it was Roenick again, and it was 3-0 Kings after only 4:18 of play. Too bad Roenick and Avery don't play together or we could call their line The Mouths that Scored. Another goal by Dustin Brown made it 4-0 with nine seconds left in the first period.

Dallas center Mike Modano was so frustrated during an intermission interview that he inadvertently invented a new word to describe the way the Stars felt: "uptense."

Then the game entered the penalty phase, with the Kings making a steady procession to the box on a series of hooking and interference calls, the officials keeping with the league mandate to call it tighter. That knocked the Kings off-balance, and served up a reminder of their biggest question mark: goaltending.

Murray refrained from announcing his choice between Mathieu Garon and Jason LaBarbera until the last minute, because he thought it would make it harder for the Stars to prepare. When secrecy is one of your keys to goaltending, that's not a good sign.

Garon got the call -- and the challenge of 12 power plays -- and wound up with five goals against him. If it's any consolation to Garon, it was a tough night for goaltenders. Buffalo 6, N.Y. Islanders 4. N.Y. Rangers 5, Philadelphia 3. Minnesota 6, Calgary 3. Mighty Ducks 5, Chicago 3.

The real numbers won't be on the scoreboards. It will be with the turnstile count and the television ratings.

The Stars announced a sellout of 18,532, but there were noticeable pockets of empty seats at faceoff and most of them stayed empty. Still, they were excited and enthusiastic, without a hint of animosity.

"I thought the fans here were spectacular," Roenick said. "It was nice to see them come back and support the game."

Attendance wasn't the NHL's problem. It was low TV numbers that didn't allow rights fees to keep pace with salaries.

So now it's about retaining core fans with a faster-paced game.

The problem with the rule changes is that the same geniuses who brought you the pointless 1994 lockout on the heels of the NHL's breakthrough season are still running things.

That hasn't changed. But neither has the hockey culture.

Roenick actually liked the five stitches he needed for a cut over his eye Wednesday night.

"It feels good," Roenick said. "I feel like a hockey player again."

J.A. Adande can be reached at j.a.adande@latimes.com. To read previous columns by Adande go to latimes.com/adande.

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