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Hockey Notes

Kings for a day - and more?

By Kevin Paul Dupont
December 20, 2009

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The Los Angeles Kings aren’t running away with anything yet in the Western Conference, but with the season’s midpoint fast approaching they are separating themselves from their recent past - a protracted stay in NHL oblivion that has seen them not make it to the playoffs since 2002.

Two of the biggest keys: the offseason acquisitions of Ryan Smyth, acquired in a swap with Colorado, and Rob Scuderi, the former Boston College blue liner who won a Cup with the Penguins in June and then departed as a free agent for a four-year deal worth $13.6 million.

“Two real solid pros,’’ noted Dean Lombardi, the Kings general manager who grew up in Ludlow and is now in his third season of attempting to reverse the team’s fortunes. “We needed guys who fit as players, obviously, but it was equally important that they help us get to that next level, where guys believe in themselves. That’s an important phase for a building team to get through, where they believe in themselves and want to win for each other.’’

On the ice, Smyth, the gritty former Mr. Oiler who recently returned from a rib injury, has opened up space for Anze Kopitar, helping the young star forward gain confidence and also muscle in among the league’s leading scorers. Scuderi has added depth and stability to a backline that had flashy rookie Drew Doughty, who just turned 20 earlier this month, shoulder too much of the burden in 2008-09.

“Funny, you grow up watching the Bruins and you get spoiled in Boston,’’ said the 51-year-old Lombardi. “First there was [Bobby] Orr, then [Ray] Bourque and you think, ‘Heck, doesn’t everyone have guys like that?’ But of course they don’t. I love to talk to Harry [Sinden] when we’re in Boston, and last year, when we were in town, he called me during the game and said, ‘Gee, you told me about that No. 8 [Doughty] - he’s a helluva player.’ Well, he’s young to be considered in that Orr or Bourque class, obviously, but he’s got that ability to see the rink, you know, first find the right play, then make the right play . . . you see him do that over and over and you’re just left shaking your head. You can’t teach that. He’s got that gift.’’

The Kings, who will host the Bruins for a matinee Jan. 16 then come to the Garden Jan. 30, spent a couple of days last week holding down first place in the Western Conference. Headed into last night, they were tied with San Jose and Chicago for the conference lead in points (47) and already had 22 victories in 37 games, after winning only 34 last season and averaging 33 wins the last six (also-ran) seasons.

The 22-year-old Kopitar, born in what was then Yugoslavia, has been stifled on offense of late, but still stood at an impressive 16-22 -38 after Thursday night’s 2-1 loss in Calgary. As of yesterday morning, he was tied for sixth overall in points with Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. Heady company. Now halfway through his fourth NHL season, he’s no longer an emerging star, but a bona fide stud, an offensive presence who attracts the opposition’s best checkers and defensive schemes.

“He’s finding out what it’s like to be on top of the mountain,’’ said Lombardi. “It’s hard to get there, and once you get there it’s even harder to stay. But remember, this is a kid who came from Slovenia, never played in any major tournaments. He hasn’t been putting up points lately, but this is a kid who really cares, puts a lot of pressure on himself. So while maybe the points aren’t coming like they were for him at the start, he’s learning more of a backup game, contributing on defense, filling out his overall game. No question in my mind that he’ll bounce back.’’

Another key factor for the Kings has been the play of former UMass star Jonathan Quick in net. Quick, likely to be picked as one of the three Team USA Olympic netminders, has provided stability in goal that the Kings haven’t had since maybe the Kelly Hrudey (mid-1990s) era. No more trying to keep the net stitched together with the likes of Dan Cloutier, Jason LaBarbera, and Mathieu Garon.

“Quick’s been really, really good,’’ said Lombardi. “It helps immensely when a goalie can come up and steal a game for you. That just has an unbelievable impact on your team. He joined us on an East Coast swing last year, played great from the start, and you could see our guys thinking, ‘Oh . . . that’s pretty good.’ ’’

The good times are starting to roll again in LA, where the Triple Crown Line is long gone, The Great One is a fading memory, and fans of the former Purple and Gold still await their first Stanley Cup.

FEELING DEFENSIVE
Ward ready for shift out of Carolina
The Canes, who rubbed out the Bruins en route to the Eastern Conference finals in May, have been reduced to near rubble. As of yesterday, they were dead last in the Original 30 with 22 points, nine in arrears to Toronto.

On Monday, the Canes placed ex-Boston blue liner Aaron Ward (above) on waivers, his age (37 next month) and salary ($2.5 million) making him an obvious target for a sinking club looking to rearrange the deck chairs. The move also accomplished something previously believed impossible - silencing the ever-gregarious Ward.

“I appreciate your calling,’’ Ward said upon hearing a familiar voice on the phone from Boston. “But for a ton of reasons I won’t go into, I’m just going to shut up. Sorry.’’

Ward cleared waivers Tuesday, but played in Wednesday’s win over Dallas and Friday night’s loss at Florida. What happens to him after this week’s brief Christmas break is unknown, but a likely scenario would have the Canes go through the technicalities of recalling him on waivers, a move that would entice another club to claim him. A 50-50 split of his remaining salary, per the CBA, would have the acquiring club add blue line depth for a cap hit of only some $700,000. A very enticing discount for a three-time Cup winner.

Boston’s mounting injuries on the backline, especially with Mark Stuart sidelined with a fractured sternum, could have GM Peter Chiarelli interested, especially at Ward’s Building 19 discount price. But other clubs are hurting, too, and rumors late in the week had both San Jose and Chicago evincing some interest. Detroit, where Ward won two Cups, has been decimated by injuries, including Niklas Kronwall and Jonathan Ericsson on defense.

“You know,’’ said Ward, “a crazy game sometimes, isn’t it?’’

ETC.
Healing Lucic on outside looking in
Bruins winger Milan Lucic (left), recovering from a sprained ankle, made his way around the Fenway ice in street shoes during Friday morning’s first skate at the ballpark. “I felt like a little kid out there,’’ said Looch, noting that, in contrast to some of the veterans, including 91-year-old Milt Schmidt, he is a kid. “I really wanted to be a part of it.’’ As of Friday, the 21-year-old Lucic figured he would try to skate within a couple of days, his first strides since wrenching the ankle Nov. 25 in Minnesota. “I’m happy my knee is OK,’’ he said, noting that the video replay showed his right knee buckle awkwardly when he caught a rut in the ice. “It could have been a torn MCL or ACL and that would have been a lot worse.’’

He’s on assignment
Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna, the former Bruins goalie coach, will be on hand for the Jan. 1 game, scouring the ballyard in sort of a scouting mission prior to the Hockey East doubleheader to be staged there a week later. “A lot of fun to be in the middle of it,’’ said Bertagna, who also played goal for Harvard. “In the end, I think you’ll be hard-pressed to find someone in New England who says he or she wasn’t there for the game.’’ Bertagna worked in the ballpark in 1967, the Red Sox “Impossible Dream’’ season, selling hot dogs. “So, to be back, what, 42 or 43 years later in this role, that’s kinda neat,’’ he said. Tickets for the Hockey East twinbill, featuring the Northeastern and UNH women’s squads, followed by a BC-BU men’s nightcap, sold out immediately when they went on sale in September. BC, as the home team, will dress in the Red Sox clubhouse. BU will take the visitors’ room on the third base side. According to Bertagna, the women will dress in makeshift rooms created in the batting cage area under the center-field bleachers.

After further study . . .
Bruins coach Claude Julien, who turns 50 in April, as a player took the Canadian junior route in hopes of making it to the big time, putting in tours with both the Oshawa Generals and Windsor Spitfires over four seasons. During Boston’s rookie camp, held at the start of September in Kitchener, Ontario, he confided that his choice today, some 30 years later, likely would be to play for a top US college program - no doubt music to the ears of the newly formed College Hockey, Inc., based in Newton. Prior to Boston’s game last Saturday on Long Island, Julien said he felt today’s college players typically enter the NHL with better conditioning levels than most of the top junior players, simply because the college players have fewer games and more time for off-ice training. As a trade-off, he noted candidates from the junior leagues arrive with more game experience and are perhaps better prepared for the day-to-day grind of professional hockey.

Pond scrums
Scott Crowder, son of former Bruin Bruce Crowder, is staging the first New England Pond Hockey Classic, Feb. 5-7, on Lake Winnipesaukee in Meredith, N.H. (go to: www.pondhockeyclassic.com). According to Crowder, who played his college hockey at UMass, 45 teams had registered as of late last week, leaving room for another 15 squads across five divisions, including a “Just-For-Fun’’ division for those who take their 4-on-4 hockey (no goalies) even less seriously than it is meant to be. Play is designed to be spread out over seven “rinks,’’ each 150 feet by 75 feet. Winners of each division will take home a Winnipehockey Cup. Bruce Crowder, the former Northeastern hockey coach, these days is the New England sales manager for Atrium Medical, based in Hudson, N.H.

Loose pucks
For now, the Canadiens are holding on to backup goalie Jaroslav Halak amid rumors that Montreal GM Bob Gainey has been talking with his Flyer counterpart, Paul Holmgren, about a deal to send the backstop to Broad Street. Halak doesn’t like being parked behind alleged phenom Carey Price. Halak has a very economical cap hit ($775,000), making him attractive to the goalie-starved Flyers. Holmgren likely will try to unload either Simon Gagne or Daniel Briere, but their cap numbers (approximate average $5.75 million) would be too much for Les Glorieux to assume . . . The Lightning, sputtering along in a 2-8-2 slump, have started to bench guys in an attempt to kick-start the offense. Alex Tanguay and Jeff Halpern were the first of the scratches. “I must not be the only one,’’ said a disappointed Tanguay. The good news for him: his one-year, $2.5 million deal. His production is way off (19 points in 34 games), but with about half his money paid already, someone will take a stab at the perennial 20-goal scorer . . . Boston icon Ray Bourque, in attendance for the Friday morning skate at Fenway Park, wore the same skates he had on for his last NHL game, the night he won the Cup, June 9, 2001, in Colorado . . . Jason Spezza’s knee injury, which will keep him out of Ottawa’s lineup through the Olympic break, won’t impact his chances of making the Canadian Olympic team. Why? Because, according to an NHL source familiar with GM Steve Yzerman’s punch list, Spezza was crossed off the list weeks ago . . . Both Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard, despite not being asked to the Canadian orientation camp over the summer, remain high on Yzerman’s “watch’’ list . . . Forward Jordan Caron, Boston’s top pick in the June draft, made it through Team Canada’s cuts for the upcoming World Junior Championship in Saskatoon. “We’ve had four or five recent looks at him,’’ said GM Peter Chiarelli, referring to Boston’s scouting reports. “He’s gotten back to where he was, and in a hurry.’’ Caron fractured a collarbone at Team Canada’s summer camp, delaying the start of his junior season. Chiarelli & Co. believe he could push for a job with the Boston varsity as early as next September . . . When Chiarelli says that he can feel for the injured Mark Stuart, he speaks from experience. The GM fractured his sternum during his playing days at Harvard. “I got hit along the boards, my shoulder compressing in, causing the fracture,’’ recalled Chiarelli, Class of ’87. “Pretty much all you can do is lay down and wait for it to heal; it’s at the center point of every move you make.’’ Contrary to reports, said Chiarelli, Stuart is not in a body cast . . . When the NHL packs up at Fenway after the final public skate Jan. 10, it will be a month to the day that the truck arrived with its ice-making goodies. A month is longer than an entire Olympic Games. Sure got our attention, didn’t they?

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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