Two years after winning the Cup, the Kings’ ‘mix’ comes into question

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Oh, how quickly things can change in the NHL.

Two years after winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, the Los Angeles Kings find themselves down 3-0 in their first-round series with the San Jose Sharks, one loss away from getting swept out of the playoffs without even winning a game.

Dating back to last year’s Western Conference Final versus Chicago, L.A. has now lost seven of its last eight postseason contests. As a result, some are wondering if changes need to be made.

From the Los Angeles Times’ Helene Elliott:

Time is running out on their season and, maybe, on this group.

They’ll always have their 2012 Cup triumph, the sweet memory of rising from the No. 8 seed to dominate every playoff series they won and bring indescribable joy to fans who had suffered through decades of disappointment. But with a young team and a stud goaltender in Quick, that seemed like only the beginning of an era.

Now it seems near an end, because the mix simply isn’t right anymore.

Los Angeles has six players signed to long-term deals: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, and Jonathan Quick. Anze Kopitar is only locked up for the next two seasons, but it seems unlikely the Kings would ever let him become an unrestricted free agent. Youngsters Jake Muzzin and Tyler Toffoli probably aren’t going anywhere either.

Besides those 10 players, though, one has to wonder how much the roster could turn over in the next year or two. The NHL is a young man’s league, and key cogs of that 2012 championship team — veterans like Willie Mitchell, Justin Williams, and Jarret Stoll — aren’t getting any younger.

There’s also the matter of goal-scoring. Specifically, the lack of it. As much as the Kings control the puck, they just don’t put many in the net. In 2011-12, L.A. finished the regular season with the second-worst offense in the NHL. A championship helped that fact get overlooked. The offense improved to 10th in the shortened 2013 campaign, but it struggled again this season, finishing fifth from the bottom of the league, averaging just 2.42 goals per game.

Some of that could be related to personnel, and maybe there’s a bit of bad luck mixed in there, too. But for general manager Dean Lombardi, it’s at least worth asking if coach Darryl Sutter’s system is stifling the Kings’ creativity. Because let’s put it this way: a player with Doughty’s considerable offensive talents is capable of more than 37 points in a season.

Now, that being said, there’s always the risk of overreacting. We’ve seen what happens when teams try to become something they’re not, and the results can be ugly. (Just ask fans of the Capitals and Canucks.) The Kings won the Cup with great defense and goaltending, plus a healthy dose of size and strength. The core is still fairly young. Heck, save for a bad bounce, they could only be down 2-1 to the Sharks, with a chance to tie the series Thursday at home.

Still, if you’re not constantly trying to improve, you’re asking for trouble in the NHL, where there’s not a ton of difference between a championship team and first-round victim.

Ian Cole adjusts to missing teeth, life with a cage

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NEW YORK — Ian Cole has played 342 games and blocked 578 shots in his NHL career. Two weeks ago, he finally got to experience losing teeth as a hockey player.

As he displayed on Twitter (don’t look, really) the following day, the Pittsburgh Penguins defensemen lost three choppers in gruesome fashion after taking a Roman Josi slap shot to the mouth on Oct. 7. When he returned to the lineup Tuesday night against the New York Rangers, he was a couple of pounds lighter and wearing a cage.

“It was definitely something it looks nasty, it certainly was nasty. The feeling of them clipping away at bone off my jaw was not a feeling that I would want to have again,” he said after Tuesday’s morning skate. “But it could have been much worse. It could have been a broken jaw, could have been a lot more teeth. I certainly was fortunate.”

Cole re-joined his teammates on the ice this week and after seeing his diet switch to that of rice cakes, smoothies and soups, he’s back to eating solid foods, and the weight that was lost is slowly returning. After the Penguins arrived in New York City on Monday, he went the sushi route for dinner, preferring not to take a chance with a steak.

While playing at Notre Dame, Cole sported a half-shield, half-visor look, so going the full cage route won’t be a major adjustment. Once the Penguins medical staff tell him he’s able to say goodbye to the cage, Cole will go back to wearing just a visor.

“There’s a little bit of visibility difference, but it’s not that big of a deal,” he said. “You shouldn’t be looking down at the puck too much anyway ideally. There might be a time or two when you might lose the puck for a second, but hopefully those times are few and far between.”

Cole’s dad, Doug, is a dentist, and has been especially interested in his son’s recovery, passing along questions he has to the medical staff about the treatment they are giving the defensman.

After going through this experience for the first time in his career Cole says he believes if the NHL ever mandated cages for players they would get accustomed to it over time.

“Guys always get used to it, whether it’s visors or slashing calls now or face-off rules, guys adapt well and they’ll be fine,” he said. “That decision’s way above my pay grade but guys can adapt to that.”

Cole will get used to peering through a cage on the ice. But will what he went through cause some hesitation next time the opportunity to block a shot arises? He led all players with five blocked shots at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night.

“Now that I’ve got the full cage on, I’ve got nothing to worry about,” he joked. “I’m in full armor, I’m ready to go.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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‘Young Mario’ Matthews continues to reinvent ways to score

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WASHINGTON (AP) — Auston Matthews is drawing comparisons to Mario Lemieux and getting noticed by Bryce Harper amid a hot start to his second NHL season.

Last season’s Calder Trophy winner as rookie of the year, Matthews went into training camp seeking to be more assertive on the ice. That has translated to five goals and three assists in his first six games and the kind of improved all-around play that makes the face of the Toronto Maple Leafs a superstar already at age 20.

”He’s got a skillset that ranges from just about everything,” Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said Tuesday. ”The ceiling’s the limit for Matts, and he knows he can be a great player and he already is. It’s crazy to think he’s (still) at such a young age.”

Even though Matthews remains in the shadow of Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby on hockey’s pantheon of top players, he already has filled up the highlight reel thanks to some tweaks and adjustments. The Scottsdale, Arizona, native was the first rookie to score 40 goals since Alex Ovechkin in 2005-06 and is conscious of the pressure to keep up that pace.

”You’re always reinventing yourself,” Matthews said. ”The league’s always adjusting and you’ve got to adjust right back to it.”

The league hasn’t adjusted yet. Matthews showed that by scoring goals so many different ways this season.

Matthews scored an overtime winner against Chicago by taking the puck off a carom off the back of Patrick Kane‘s right skate and going down the ice. Against Montreal, he scored one goal by flipping the puck past a Canadiens defender and knocking it down at full speed before firing through a screen, and then another on the rush by shooting short side on 2015 Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Carey Price.

”For me, the first (Montreal goal) was probably a little more impressive just how he handled the pass and you see how much he changed the angle,” Toronto winger James van Riemsdyk said. ”He’s really good at changing the angle, getting it off quick, things like that. He’s got a lot of different shots that he’ll try within his toolbox. It makes him pretty unpredictable when he’s going to shoot it.”

Matthews has only played 88 regular-season and six playoff games and yet has admirers far and wide.

Harper wore a brand new blue No. 34 Matthews jersey out of the Washington Nationals’ clubhouse after their season-ending Game 5 loss to the Chicago Cubslast week. Matthews said he doesn’t know Harper, who’s from Las Vegas, but called the honor ”awesome.”

Capitals coach Barry Trotz has been watching Matthews’ growth and likened him – already – to a Hockey Hall of Famer and one of the best players in history.

”Auston Matthews, I’ve been saying it: He’s a young Mario Lemieux,” Trotz said. ”He’s (big), he can skate, he’s ultra-skilled, he’s very, very competitive, he makes plays.”

Matthews’ rookie success earned him another believer: himself. He said last month he was aiming to trust his skills more and want the puck more. With the season underway he said ”you just want to be the best player you can be,” and that’s evident with how much the line of Matthews, Zach Hyman and William Nylander have had the puck.

”We’ve been able to create offense, which is important, and that leads to chances,” Nylander said. ”That’s always a positive.”

At even strength, Matthews has been on the ice for 80 Leafs shots and 64 by opponents, evidence of just how much his evolving defensive game benefits the Maple Leafs.

”When you play well defensively, you feel like you get the puck more,” Matthews said. ”We’re offensive guys. We want to create offense so when you have the puck it feels good and you feel like you can create chances.”

Those chances are coming, and Matthews is cashing in on them. No wonder he has earned coach Mike Babcock’s trust.

”He’s a good player trying to get better each and every day,” Babcock said. ”What I like about him is how hard he works and how competitive he is and how much he wants to get better. The best players in the league, the superstars, they love hockey more than everyone else, so they can work at it harder and longer than the next guy.”

Matthews downplays his own improvements but sounds like a perfect Babcock-type player when discussing his early-season success.

”I feel good,” Matthews said. ”Just a couple weeks in, so you want to find that consistency individually, with your linemates, with everybody. You just want to continue to get better every day.”

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NHL on NBCSN doubleheader: Blackhawks vs. Blues; Canadiens vs. Kings

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2017-18 NHL season continues with a doubleheader on Wednesday night. In the early game, the St. Louis Blues host the Chicago Blackhawks at 8:00 p.m. ET. To watch the game online, click here

It’s still early, but the Blackhawks and Blues are currently first and second in the Central Division standings, so this should be a pretty entertaining matchup.

Despite making plenty of big changes this off-season, the ‘Hawks have found a way to take care of business so far. No Western Conference team has scored more goals (25) than Chicago, and they owe a lot of that to Brandon Saad.

Saad was re-acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in a trade involving Artemi Panarin. The move may not have been overly popular at the time, but Saad is off to an incredible start (six goals and two assists in six games). Add Patrick Kane (eight points in six games), Ryan Hartman (eight points in six games), Jonathan Toews (six points in six games) and Richard Panik (six points in six games), and you quickly understand why the ‘Hawks have been so good.

Also, don’t forget about Corey Crawford, who’s been lights out this season. He’s won four of five starts and he owns a 1.39 goals-against-average and a .960 save percentage. Referring to him as good is a heck of an understatement.

The Blues might not be as flashy as the ‘Hawks, but they’ve been impressive nonetheless. St. Louis has had to overcome injuries to key figures like Alex Steen, Jay Bouwmeester and Robby Fabbri early on this season.

They have cooled down a little though, as they’re coming off back-to-back losses to in Florida and Tampa Bay. In their defense, those were the final two games of a four-game road trip and it was a stretch of five road games (six games overall) is 11 days.

In the late game, the Los Angeles Kings host the Montreal Canadiens at 10:30 p.m. ET. To stream that game live, click here

The 2017-18 season hasn’t been kind to the Canadiens, who have now lost five games in a row. Montreal is coming off a 5-2 loss to San Jose last night.

There are some major concerns with the team right now. First, their top players haven’t been performing up to standard. Max Pacioretty, who has been an automatic 30-goal scorer over the last four seasons, hasn’t looked dangerous at all this season.

Alex Galchenyuk scored his first goal of the season last Saturday, but he hasn’t been overly impressive either. He’s been so inconsistent that head coach Claude Julien has decided to demote him to the fourth line.

And then there’s Carey Price, who has looked like a shell of himself in the early going. By now, we know that without Price, this team doesn’t have a chance of making a dent. He has a 1-4-1 record with a 3.56 goals-against-average and a .885 save percentage.

If those three players don’t get their game sorted out quickly, the Canadiens could be in for a very long season.

Things couldn’t be going much better for the Kings right now. They’re off to a 4-0-1 start, and players that struggled to produce last year have been really good this year.

Captain Anze Kopitar has eight points in five games, which is impressive. And where has this Dustin Brown been? Brown four goals and three assists in five games. Last season, he had 14 goals and 36 points. Can he keep it up? Probably not, but the Kings will continue to ride these guys for as long as they can.

Overall, it’s been a dream start for the Kings. Going from Darryl Sutter to John Stevens appears to be paying off in a big way.

“I think it’s a lot of what we hoped it would be,” Stevens said of the season so far, per LAKingsInsider.com. “We wanted to be a really solid, defensively sound team, but we wanted to have more of an attack mentality so we can do more with the puck. We’ve created some really good quality opportunities on the rush, and I think we’re starting to implement some of the things in terms of having more of an attacking mindset when we’re in the offensive zone. I think we’ve got lots of work to do with that. We want to be an aggressive team, but we want to have more of an attack mindset on our team.”

PHT Morning Skate: Is the Golden Knights’ success sustainable?

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–The Arizona Coyotes have been bad for a while now and things don’t appear to be getting better anytime soon. The ‘Yotes are off to a sluggish start. They remain the only team in the league to not have recorded a win in 2017-18. “It hasn’t gone as planned,” GM John Chayka said Monday. “We want to win. We haven’t got a win yet, so that’s unacceptable.” One of the biggest problems is that they’re giving up over four goals per game. (arizonasports.com)

–No one expects an expansion team to be loaded with depth, but the Vegas Golden Knights have proven to be pretty deep this year. For now, it’s working for them, but forcing players that are playing well to sit as healthy scratches could become a problem down the road. (sinbin.vegas)

–Speaking of the Golden Knights, Andrew Berkshire looks at whether or not they’re as good as they’ve been playing early on this season. Although they’re likely playing above their heads, they’ll probably be better than many people expected. (Sporting News)

PHT’s James O’Brien wrote a great piece about the Edmonton Oilers’ struggles so far this season, but here’s a different perspective from oilersnation.com. Cam Talbot‘s slow start isn’t overly concerning. The lack of secondary scoring is a real problem though. (oilersnation.com)

–The Ottawa Senators are off to a relatively good start, but the possession stats have left a lot to be desired. How are they doing it? Will they be able to keep it up? The return of Erik Karlsson has to count for something. (Sportsnet)

–The pace of the NHL game has gotten extremely fast, so it’s become more challenging for referees to keep up. Like players, officials have their own training camp. What do they do there?  “We work on repetitive movements on the ice. We also let them play hockey and we officiate the hockey. We have enough guys with minor-league guys there-there’s about 80 guys at camp-that we can make six teams and the quality of hockey was actually pretty good this year,” said the NHL’s vice-president and director of officiating Stephen Walkom. (fanragsports.com)

–Calgary’s search for a new arena remains complicated for the Flames. With the re-election of Naheed Nenshi, who isn’t a fan of the idea that public money needs to be spent on a new rink, things could get ugly. (The Hockey News)

–According to blueseatblogs, part of the reason why the Rangers are so bad this year is because head coach Alain Vigneault is having issues with deployment. Part of the problem, is that Vingeault hasn’t identified who his shutdown pairing is yet. (blueseatblogs.com)

–Over the summer, Derek Stepan got traded for the first time in his career. The adjustment has been difficult. After all, New York and Arizona offer very different lifestyles. “As we go each day, the more comfortable I get. And the more comfortable I get, the more I fit in,” Stepan said. “I feel like I’m getting closer and closer. I felt like the new kid at school.” (ESPN.com)

–NBCSN will be broadcasting tonight’s Rivalry Night game between the Blackhawks and Blues, and NHL.com gives you five reasons to watch this contest. A matchup between Patrick Kane and Vladimir Tarasenko can’t be dull! (NHL.com)

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

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