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Kings pregame: Time to dig in -- but Ryan Smyth will be there with a shovel

December 26, 2009 |  5:19 pm

Smyth_300 Ryan Smyth (pictured at right) is back in the Kings' lineup after a 15-game absence caused by a rib injury. And Coach Terry Murray is the only person happier than center Anze Kopitar to see the gritty left winger return tonight when they face the Phoenix Coyotes at Jobing.com Arena.

Before Smyth was injured, Kopitar had 14 goals and 32 points in 22 games. Without Smyth to draw him to the net, he had two goals and six points in 15 games. Justin Williams, the right wing on that line, did slightly better during Smyth's absence, scoring three goals and nine points.

"We're going to put them back together and play them lots of minutes, I hope," Murray said. "I’d like to see the chemistry click right away, absolutely. What I liked the way they started the year, obviously there was good things happening immediately and if we can just pick that right up from this game here it would give our team a big boost."

Right wing Wayne Simmonds will return after missing four games because of minor knee surgery. Murray said he will play Simmonds with Alexander Frolov on the left and Oscar Moller in the middle, leaving Michal Handzus to center for Brad Richardson and Dustin Brown.

"I like what happened there for a few games so I kind of want to build off the chemistry that looked like it was building with those games," Murray said of the Richardson-Handzus-Brown line.

This will be the Kings' first game since Dec. 17. While they were resting the Coyotes passed them and entered Saturday's game with 48 points to the Kings' 47. The Kings are still in good shape, but nothing from here on out will be easy -- and Murray said he told his players exactly that before the two-day Christmas break.

"It gets harder now. The checking, everything. It gets grittier and harder and harder to come by," he said. "So be prepared for that and it will only tighten up even more after the Olympic break.

"It’s going to be a good test for our young guys. I’m looking forward to how we respond to the second half of the year basically."

So far, they've exceeded expectations, even though they lost two of their last three games before their break.

"It’s a good first half. Again, maybe a little bit above where we expected to be at the start of the year but seeing we are now it’s important that we take on the responsibility to continue on. Dig in," Murray said.

More later at www.latimes.com/sports

-- Helene Elliott, from Glendale, Ariz.

Photo credit: James Guillory / US Presswire

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