Six games is a small sample but enough to conclude that Darryl Sutter has had a positive impact on the Kings since he succeeded Terry Murray as their coach.
Their impressive 4-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday night at Staples Center improved their record to 4-0-2 under Sutter and meant they had scored more than two goals twice in the last four games. They weren’t able to exceed two goals in regulation in 14 games before their 4-3 victory over Phoenix last Monday in Sutter’s third game behind their bench.
They’ve also recorded points in a season-high seven consecutive games (5-0-2) and have killed 26 straight penalties and 73 of their last 76.
Brad Richardson, Matt Greene, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams each scored goals, with Kopitar ending a career-worst 17-game famine with a beautiful backhander, as the Kings moved atop the Pacific Division. Williams’ goal, scored during a third-period power play, was only their third man-advantage goal in 45 tries over 13 games.
Kopitar said after Saturday’s morning skate that he felt he was near a breakthrough but players often say that and rarely make it come true.
“I had that feeling. I was feeling pretty good,” said Kopitar, who took a pass from Williams and showed great patience in holding onto the puck before backhanding it past Roberto Luongo at 13:08 of the second period.
“I knew I was playing decent, too. It’s not like I didn’t get any chances. I was getting a lot of shots lately and just couldn’t find the back of the net. Tonight I just went in there and did my thing. I had done it before, like I said this morning, and it worked for me.”
Sutter has won raves from players for allowing them to be more aggressive and urging them to play a more up-tempo game than they played under Murray. He has also been relentlessly upbeat, a note that resonated with the Kings as they struggled to meet heightened expectations.
“We’ve been playing pretty good,” Sutter said, adding that the team is trying to take a lot of steps and on Saturday made advances by getting contributions from several players. Among them were center Andrei Loktionov and defenseman Slava Voynov, who each recorded two assists.
Sutter said Kopitar “scored a big goal and that makes him feel good again. He’s been struggling with scoring but he’s getting a lot of shots and that’s what we’ve been trying to reinforce, keep shooting. We had two or three of those plays.”
Kopitar is among Sutter’s biggest fans.
“I just think we’re more aggressive. We’re pursuing the puck a lot more and we’re playing with it a lot more,” Kopitar said. “The difference with Terry maybe is that before we were waiting a little too much. Now we’re going after it.”
The Canucks got off to a strong start Saturday and scored on their first shot against Jonathan Quick.
Defenseman Kevin Bieksa scored the goal, taking a one-timer off a slick backhand pass from Daniel Sedin and rifling the puck past Quick at 3:06. But from then on the Kings controlled the play, and it paid off for them at 9:13.
That’s when the scrappy Richardson, stopped in his first attempt to get the puck underneath Luongo, pounced on his own rebound and lifted it above the goalie’s pads for his third goal this season. The assists went to Loktionov and Voynov.
Mike Richards hit the post later in the period but neither team was able to score. Richards was moved to the left wing in this game alongside Kopitar and Dustin Brown, and the threesome had an energetic and effective start.
The Kings took a 2-1 lead in the second period, a margin they protected by killing a Vancouver four-on-three advantage midway through the period. They later extended their lead to 3-1, only the second time in 18 games they had scored more than two goals in regulation play.
Greene’s second goal this season, his other came Nov. 12, put the Kings ahead at 8:20. Loktionov took control of the puck after some confusion on the Canucks’ part and slid a pass to Greene, whose shot from the right point eluded Luongo. The goalie angrily flung the puck down ice and tempers erupted in a scrum in which each team got a penalty. At 8:59 Richards got four minutes for high-sticking Ryan Kesler, leaving the Kings shorthanded, but they killed off that disadvantage.
Kopitar ended his scoring slump at 13:08, notching a backhander past a helpless Luongo.
Williams capped the scoring with his sixth goal this season as the Kings ended 2011 on an upbeat note.
“I think it’s still a work in progress but we’ve been having some success over the last little bit with Darryl coming in,” Greene said. “This was a good game for us, obviously, but we’ve got to keep going. We can’t rest on this game.”