Column: Interim coach Jim Hiller gives Kings a blueprint for success, and they execute it

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LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 10: Los Angeles Kings Jim Hiller looks on from the bench during the second period against the Edmonton Oilers at Arena on February 10, 2024 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Juan Ocampo/NHLI via Getty Images)

In the few days since Jim Hiller took over as Kings interim coach, he has worked more deliberately to change the mood of the players than to change the team’s strategy.

His first instructions Thursday, after leading them through practice for the first time, were simple and not revolutionary: Have fun. Work hard. Work for each other, and it’ll be fun and build camaraderie, so you’ll have an easier path towards returning to early-season fitness. Players liked what they heard.

“We’ve been through ups and downs this year. It’s time to have fun again. It’s time to come to the rink with a smile on our faces,” was the sum of Pierre-Luc Dubois. “Excited to get back on the ice for practice, excited to get back on the ice for games. Doing together.”

Hiller’s second instruction is difficult to articulate. “I can’t really say it because there’s a swear word in it,” Quinton Byfield said.

When pressed, Byfield said the phrase started with “Let’s” and ended with “Go” and had an expletive in the middle. “We get these on T-shirts,” he joked.

It doesn’t matter if they put that message on T-shirts, caps or tattoos. What was important was that the Kings played as they believed in Saturday with a 4-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers, who had won 17 of their previous 18 games.

Read more: Jim Hiller wins in his first coaching as Kings shut out Oilers

After a long break and playing a team that eliminated them in the first round of the playoffs each of the last two seasons, the Kings put together a strong effort in Hiller’s first NHL coaching tour. They stopped on one of two power plays and killed the five disadvantages they faced.

Not only did they not blow the 2-0 lead they carried into the third period, they extended it. Goaltender David Rittich made 26 saves to record his first shutout as a King and first since February 22, 2021, when he was with Calgary and blanked Toronto.

“We never lost faith or trust in ourselves,” Rittich said. “We know we are good players. A good hockey club. And we can win. “

Dubois contributed more on Saturday than he had in the previous month, drawing a penalty, scoring their first goal on the power play and making four shots. Byfield set up their second goal by dispossessing Connor McDavid of the puck in the defensive zone and feeding Trevor Lewis’ streak. Byfield scored their third goal off a rebound and their fourth in an empty net.

“You just need a new voice in the room. Jimmy stepped up and was fantastic,” Byfield said. “Todd was really good to me. He’s a great hockey mind and I’m sure he’s going to get another coaching opportunity but we needed a little spark in here. Something new. A different voice.”

It wasn’t perfect. The Kings were penalized twice for having too many men on the ice, which usually indicates a communication problem. The frequent penalties meant that fourth-line center Alex Turcott played just five shifts early, though Hiller said that could change when the Kings open a four-game road trip Tuesday in Buffalo.

But he was impressive on many levels, and lifted the gloom that descended on the Kings (24-15-10) as they lost 14 of 17 games and the Oilers moved past them to take third place in the Division standings. the Pacific Ocean.

“There’s no doubt here, even if the last 20ish or some games weren’t what we wanted. There’s no doubt about it,” Dubois said. “We know what kind of team we are. We know when we play together and do what we can do, we’re a team. So we showed that tonight. But that’s just the beginning for us.”

Dubois received a third instruction from Hiller, one that was personal and pointed.

“The coaching staff was here, the first day I got back, they challenged me,” he said. “They challenged me to be a better player out there and be a make a difference, and that can come in scoring goals, assists, but it could come with shots, drawing penalties. Everything maybe not everyone who ‘ consciousness.

“But since they came in the message is that I could do a lot better, and I know that. And I knew that but to be designed like that, it’s a fun challenge.”

He took it to heart on Saturday. He was involved. Affirmative. He didn’t sail.

“He’s had a solid effort,” Hiller said. “He is a very good player. We know that. He has a long history in the league of being a very good player. My challenge was to play with intensity and I bet you will have fun. Is he one of the boys who said he had fun tonight?”

Yes, he was.

Read more: Elliott: The heat is on Rob Blake after firing Todd McLellan as Kings coach

“I hope so, because it looked like he had fun tonight and he’s had a lot of nights where he didn’t look like he had fun,” Hiller said. “It’s part of the equation that too. He has to get himself in that place where he just goes for it and plays hockey like he did when he was younger, when he loved the game, when he wasn’t in this tough streak. He brought that with him tonight and hopefully that’s a stepping stone for him going forward. It’s definitely good to see him smile and enjoying himself and enjoying his evening.”

The game puck went to Hiller for his collection of important memorabilia. It’s a small collection, all from the Kings: the puck from the first goal he scored for them, in the 1992-93 season, as a 10th-round draft pick; the puck from his first win as an assistant coach, last season; and this one.

“I got a hat trick. Hoping to get more,” he said. “For me, my dream was to be drafted in the NHL, never mind play. The Los Angeles Kings, Luc Robitaille. Wayne Gretzky. That was pretty special. Like that never left me a single thing.”

This victory was a good template for the Kings. “There’s a lot of hockey to be played,” said Dubois. And maybe a lot of fun, too, if they play at the level they did on Saturday.

This story first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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