Kings' Sean O'Donnell just keeps rolling along
There was some thought early this season that Kings defenseman Sean O’Donnell was fading and might lose a chunk of playing time, if not his job, to one of the younger defensemen who have filled the team's talent pipeline. He was a healthy scratch twice on Nov. 13 and Nov. 15, a few weeks after his 38th birthday, and the end of the rugged defenseman’s road seemed near.
The Kings will play their 69th game of the season Thursday night when they face the Chicago Blackhawks at Staples Center and they will enter that game with O’Donnell averaging 18 minutes 40 seconds’ ice time and as a leader in ways that go beyond a +15 plus/minus rating that ranks third on the team.
O’Donnell hasn’t been held out of a game since that brief exile and Coach Terry Murray said he hasn’t even considered that option. O’Donnell has been too valuable, not only as a tutor to youngsters like Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson but for the physical presence and experience he brings to every game.
“Since then I don’t know if I’ve picked it up or what has happened but it hasn’t really been an issue since then,” O’Donnell said after Thursday’s morning skate.
“When you kind of get to the stage where I’m at you try not to look too far ahead. One game at a time. I didn’t know if that was going to happen again later in the year. I wasn’t sure. But it has worked out well so far.
“I remember coming back from the lockout and playing in Phoenix and getting scratched for a bunch of games that year. It’s never fun. It’s one of those things that if I’m not playing on the edge or at the top of my ability I don’t have the kind of talent where I can just get by. There’s got to be that intensity every game.”
Murray said he scratched O’Donnell for those games because he hadn’t been seeing that kind of intensity from O’Donnell on a consistent basis, “that hard, heavy, gritty game that he had showed the previous year.” But Murray has had no complaints since then.
“I like the way he’s bounced back. Take a look at the minutes he’s playing, his plus/minus,” said Murray, who has paired O’Donnell with offense-minded Johnson the past few weeks.
“His role on this team has stayed the same as it was last year. An important player. A veteran presence and helping the younger players develop their game. “
Not only is O’Donnell playing more, he’s taking time to savor every moment.
“I’m at the point now where I talk to my wife all the time and we know these days aren’t going to last too much longer. We’re going to hope for a little bit longer, but not too much longer, and you kind of want to seize the opportunity,” said O’Donnell, who began his career with the Kings in 1994-95 and returned in September of 2008. “And if you are going to get sat out you want to get sat out kicking and screaming — but in a professional way.”
The playoff experience O’Donnell has gained — which includes a Stanley Cup ring with the Ducks in 2007 — should enhance his value in the coming weeks, especially because so many of his teammates have no NHL playoff experience at all.
Core players Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov and Doughty have yet to appear in a postseason game, and O’Donnell is ready to tell them what to expect as the pressure ratchets up.
“This is what you play for. The 82-game schedule is just jockeying for position in the playoffs and making sure you’re playing your best hockey in the playoffs. It’s really a long preseason or long rehearsal for the main thing,” he said. “There are a couple of guys on this team who haven’t been there and haven’t had a chance to play these kinds of games and it has been a great experience.
“We said earlier on that our goal was to make the playoffs. I think we’ll make the playoffs and I even think that home ice in the first round is still a good possibility if we play well in these last 14 games.”
Two games into Justin Williams’ return from a broken ankle find him still looking for his first point. Which isn’t startling — it takes a while for a player to regain his timing and his fitness.
But Williams said he’s feeling better with each game he plays alongside Kopitar and Ryan Smyth and he hopes to make an impact soon.
“We’ll see tonight but I think I’m getting there. I’m feeling confident out there,” he said. “I think I can get back to where I need to be real soon.”
His eagerness to return, the time of the season and the Kings’ nearness to a playoff spot have combined to trigger almost too much adrenalin for him.
“Your heart’s going a little bit more and you’re just more excited. When I’m out there I need to calm myself down and not get too riled up because that’s when you make mistakes,” he said. “I’m hoping for a big game tonight.”
And a goal that will count, he added, referring to an apparent goal Sunday that was disallowed against Nashville.
“We want to get our line going because the last two games we haven’t been on the score sheet five on five so it will be key for us to get some shots, get some action,” he said. “Whether or not we score, we need some offensive zone time.”
More later at www.latimes.com/sports
— Helene Elliott