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April 5, 2011 :: 2:25pm ET
Purple Rain
The Los Angeles Kings' injury woes have caused a deluge of tears in the City of Angels

LOS ANGELES, CA -- I saw a story on local television the other day proclaiming the drought that's lasted two years in Los Angeles ended. Dissenting parties say that although the much welcomed precipitation has brought the reservoirs to acceptable levels, the winter rain and snow wasn't quite enough to make that determination. I agree with the former, as the doubters haven't taken into account the flood of tears brought forward by Los Angeles Kings fans over the past two weeks.

If you're a fan of the science fiction series V (and who wouldn't be with TFP feature girl Laura Vandervoort in a lead role), you'll recall that High Commander Anna unleashed Red Rain upon the Earth in an uncharacteristic fit of rage at the end of last season. A similar mythical character, the Goddess of Hockey Injuries apparently did likewise with a Purple Rain of sorts which ended the home team's chances for a Stanley Cup this season.

First and far less surprisingly, Justin Williams suffered a dislocated shoulder in a March 21 match against Calgary. Given his injury history, if you're not going to call him fragile, I wouldn't been rubbing him for good luck any time soon either. At the time of the injury, the 29-year-old right wing was Los Angeles' second leading scorer and was a month removed from signing a brand spanking new and well deserved four year contract extension. For a team that is average offensively and below par on the power play, losing one of few on the roster with a scorer's touch was a major hit. Fortunately for the Kings, right wing is a position of depth for them. Williams' absence beckoned Dustin Brown and Wayne Simmonds to find more goals in their sticks. Brown, the Kings' captain, took the challenge as an opportunity to lead by example and has performed down the stretch marvelously and has emerged as the team's leading goal scorer.

So while the Kings found their equilibrium in the few days after the Williams setback, including a home win against the Pacific Division winner San Jose Sharks, a blow was delivered in the following game that will have the Kings down for a 10 count.

In a Saturday afternoon game against the Avalanche, Kings MVP and Selke candidate Anze Kopitar when to the short boards in the offensive zone to retrieve the puck as he's done routinely throughout his franchise record streak of 330 consecutive games played. As he planted his right skate while engaging an enemy defenseman, the force of the blow that threw him backwards was so great that he had no chance to extend the streak to 331 as he crumpled to the ice. Though we were in the press box at the time, a replay of the Fox Sports West telecast chillingly told the story. The cameras continued to follow the puck and play as they should and left the scene of the injury. While the camera was shifting back to the fallen Kopitar, the great Kings color analyst Jim Fox uttered the simple words thousands of Kings supporters did simultaneously throughout the Southland, "Get up, Kopi."

While he did rise, Kopitar needed the help of Dustin Penner and Alexei Ponikarovsky to get back to the dressing room, putting no weight on the right leg. The obligatory and increasingly stupid, "Anze Kopitar suffered a lower body injury and is unlikely to return" announcement echoed shortly thereafter with no comment throughout the hushed press box. Kings Coach Terry Murray strode to the podium for his post-game press conference to state as unemotionally as he could that his best player had a broken ankle and was gone for a minimum of six weeks. He failed to mention that his team's playoff chances were gone as well. In an effort to bring levity to a sad as moment as there's been in Murray's tenure, I closed the presser by asking if he had any plans to call Devils coach Jacques Lemaire to discuss the value propositions of the neutral zone trap.

The intrigue regarding actual nature of the injury took on a life of its own as well. Over the next 48 hours, the club changed the affliction from the one the coach reported to high ankle sprain with torn ligaments. While some sources refute the claim and are sticking to their belief is that it's still a fractured ankle (with the great irony that it could the same injury that the oft-injured Williams suffered last season), the consequences that have Kopitar on the shelf until summertime makes it all moot.

The Kings have put back to back playoff seasons together, no small feat from the dark days of Ladislav Nagy and Marc Crawford marking the genesis of the Dean Lombardi era not so long ago. Their record through 72 games was the same as last season's breakthrough year and while the strength of schedule of the closing games likely won't have them match the 101 point total of last season, making the post-season dance in consecutive years is the consistency this franchise has sought over a couple of decades. This team will continue to build through drafting and development because make no mistake, while it's great to have the Pacific Ocean in your backyard and never have to drive to a home game in snow is welcomed, players shy away from the franchise not because of the stern, hard negotiating general manager but due to the travel that handicaps West Coast teams. Only because he played in Vancouver and knew the pitfalls of the air miles logged, did the increasingly valuable Willie Mitchell consider the Kings as a free agency landing spot.

The Kings will qualify for the post-season by virtue of a crucial win against Dallas at home on Saturday but are an underdog in any first round Western Conference matchup. Given their lack of a pure scorer in the mold of an Ilya Kovalchuk or Dany Heatley, management and coaching staff have developed this team through goaltending and defense. While those traits are must haves to win the Stanley Cup, a team does need to occasionally score a goal. Prior to the trade deadline, convention held that the Kings were two Top 6 forwards away to be considered equals to the likes of Vancouver or Philadelphia. Add Dustin Penner, subtract Kopitar and Williams and even the mathematically challenged would see that adds to three. Presently, Los Angeles' top six forwards in Game 83 could include Michal Handzus, rookie Trevor Lewis, fourth liner Brad Richardson and forgotten man (up until 2 weeks ago) Oscar Moller, so logic follows that a first round Kings playoff victory would be an upset of mid level proportion. To ask the Kings to beat any of the division winners with a combined 130 points out of the lineup is frankly asking too much.

But don't tell that to LA Kings fans.

Despite losing players to the equivalent of the Canucks losing Daniel Sedin and Ryan Kesler or the Ducks losing Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, there's been an interesting groundswell of support as the final days of the season commence, from hashtags on Twitter that read #Istillbelieve to some fans suggesting that Dustin Brown use my Twitter comments about their chances being close to nil as locker room material.

Really. If I only had that much stroke but I get the frustration that accompanies a fan base that has never celebrated a Stanley Cup championship.

Kings fans will reason with you that their best hope is to steal a series is to be in the 4-5 matchup; even the staunchest of supporters admit the octane isn't there to beat Vancouver, Detroit or San Jose. The minor problem with that logic is that the likely opponents in this favored scenario are Nashville and Phoenix; in both cases they possess net minders that are either equal or better in Ilya Bryzgalov and Pekka Rinne. The only thing worse than seeing the Kings Stanley Cup chances limp off the ice with Kopitar would be is if their heroes first round matchup comes against the increasingly confident arch rival Anaheim Ducks. I plan to hire an assistant to manage my Twitter account if that goes down.

And don't tell that to the Kings either.

"We've been playing a defensive style with Kopitar and Williams in the lineup, so nothing has changed in our approach. The games have been tight over the past two months," alternate captain Matt Greene reasons. Greene decided to take things into his own hands by netting the game winning marker last Saturday that was likely the final note in the Dallas Stars 2nd half blues symphony.

"Our mentality has been the same, we've been in playoff mode and things haven't changed when we lost those guys. But we have to improve offensively, we need more sustained pressure around the net," admitted Jarret Stoll, who's keyed the top five ranked penalty kill this season. The team got an emotional boost by the unexpected appearance of Williams at practice on Sunday but it's unreasonable to expect any first round performance near to the 100% needed for him to be a factor.

If the Kings are looking for additional offense, they shouldn't expect 2009 1st round pick Brayden Schenn to swoop in from juniors and be the next Logan Couture. Although he can be recalled at the end of his junior season in Saskatoon, business logic says that to burn a year off his entry level deal for a handful of playoff games in support of a big underdog is a losing proposition.

More realistically, as the need for additional offense is now a 911 not 411, some in the room need to have a long look in the mirror as the second week of April approaches. Dustin Penner, handicapped with the loss of Kopitar, needs a better performance than the eight game scoreless streak he's posted down the stretch. Jack Johnson, who's struggled on the ice but not with his bank account as a result of signing a $ 30 million extension in January, has gone 25 games without a goal and 10 games without a point going into Monday's match in San Jose. The numbers for an offensive-minded defenseman get even uglier when you consider he is the only one of the Kings top six defensemen with a minus rating and a deep one at that (-16). Johnson's play could be X factor in a potential first round upset but if he continues at his certain level, there's little opportunity for the Kings to emerge from Round 1.

So Kings fans should celebrate a second consecutive playoff season, enjoy the intensity of that first home playoff game when the players hit the ice and then use the balance of their money plunked down for future rounds towards next season's tickets and hope Anze Kopitar and the teammates are 100% for a Cup run in 2011-12 season.

BOTTAING OUT

A few months ago, I gave my take on a situation where the New York Islanders chose to revoke the credentials of a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, Chris Botta. At the time, I made the point that the action wasn't censorship but the right any business has to limit access to the media. I thought that the matter was closed, due in part to the fact that the outlet Mr. Botta wrote for AOL Fanhouse, was purchased by Sporting News and the editorial staff did not think highly enough of either the market or the writer to keep the position open. Over the past week, not only was the saga revived but it took a crazy and nonsensical turn.

As part of the PHWA, I've earned the right to vote on all major post season awards (except the Vezina and Jack Adams) as well as the All Star team. I stated before that to be included with the pollsters is both an honor to be link to the history of great award winners and a privilege that I've worked to achieve.

The PHWA has a chapter to cover every team and as a result there are three Metro New York area chapters -- two New York, one New Jersey. These three chapters took the unprecedented step of announcing that they were boycotting their vote for the NHL Awards in protest of Botta still not having credential status with the Islanders.

This is the part that shows you why billionaires own clubs and sportswriters are, well, sportswriters.

If the writers wanted to pressure the Islanders into reversing the decision, they should have chose to boycott the games, not withdraw from voting for season ending awards. The best way to show solidarity is to not sit in the same press row at Nassau Coliseum where they used to sit shoulder to shoulder with Botta but it would likely risk their jobs. So let's man a protest that puts us in no jeopardy but does risk our standing with the NHL. Let's start an action that potentially lowers our visibility if we lose the right to vote for the high profile awards. The NHL will likely look at this as a marvelous opportunity to grab a sponsor for fan voting for the awards and find a 'blue ribbon panel' to select the finalists. Sad to say, none of my colleagues took a primer on negotiation and civil disobedience before decided to engage in an ineffective strategy. One of my fans, a New Jersey Devils supporter made a fabulous point that if the PHWA voted for the Vezina Trophy, would Larry Brooks of the New York Post really boycott the voting if he had the opportunity to vote for the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist?

So while a right I've worked hard to earn stands at risk in a matter that has zero to do with me, the politics of the matter isn't what the most egregious part of the story.

When Chris Botta was disavowed in Uniondale, he got an audience with WFAN Radio on Mike Francesca widely listened to afternoon drive time show. On the show, Botta, who was the former PR director of the Islanders, stated he left on amicable terms and had no idea why his credential was pulled. In the days thereafter, he hypothesized that the cause was the jealousy Islanders management and ownership had over his great relationships with the players. If credentials were pulled for every reporter that had good relationships with players, there would be no credentialed reporters, it's just silly logic.

The leadership of the PHWA has come under fire for not going to the wall in support of a dues paying member of the association. One of the deans of hockey writing, USA Today's Kevin Allen, issued a brief, smart statement questioning the logic of the boycott which I am in total agreement. While I don't want to impair anyone's right to earn a living, membership to the PHWA is granted on an invitation basis only and for a body of work, certainly not a requirement for Botta to possess for continuing employment. My support for Mr. Allen's stance comes from the following logic:

What if Chris Botta's actions earned him expulsion from press row? Was there full disclosure on the nature of his relationship with the team?

I've come to learn a very different version of the reality and have been quiet up to this point but in an effort to get to the other side of the story (and there always is one), I feel a duty to those in the PHWA who feel the same way as I do as well as the public.

An alternate version of the story is that Chris Botta was terminated from the Islanders and as a result, every time he entered the locker room he came with an agenda. He routinely bad mouthed the organization to players, questioning why they would want to play for them and denigrated management. If you were GM Garth Snow or owner Charles Wang and you got wind of a former employee that you granted access was discrediting the organization at every turn, what would your best response be? Like the Islanders, I'd be doing the exact same thing, pull the 'privilege', not the 'right' to be in the building and make no comment about it.

Which of the two scenarios makes more sense? An innocent writer being singled out for doing his job for a team that is in dire need of publicity, or a terminated employee with an agenda to get back at his former boss. I'm no Sherlock Holmes, but I'm buying the latter and as for those dues paid to the PHWA, I'm happy to refund the $25 annual fee out of my own pocket if it came down the second way. With the status of the ability to vote for the awards now in potential jeopardy, shouldn't Botta do the right thing? Step away as to serve the great good of the association, thank those chapters for their support and in a public statement urge them to cast their vote to maintain the integrity of the awards and the PHWA, or is it really all about Chris?

Perhaps the PHWA should explore termination for a member that's misrepresented his situation, not enact an ill-planned, ill-advised boycott that damages the reputation and privileges of a long standing international body.

Dennis Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Senior Writer for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com. You can also visit Dennis on Twitter.


 

 

Archives:
Mar. 17, 2011 Ya gotta have Hart
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Nov. 16, 2010 Sweet Blues under the Arch
Nov. 01, 2010 A Fine Mess
Oct. 07, 2010 Two Bucks on Canucks
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