After a roller coaster-like start to the season, the Los Angeles Kings finally look like they've sobered up from their Stanley Cup hangover.
A combination of attrition, relegation and inexcusable behavior off the ice threatened to derail their sixth sequential playoff appearance and chance to repeat, but eight consecutive wins—including Saturday’s pivotal outdoor game against the San Jose Sharks—have the Kings sitting in third place in the Pacific Division with 70 points.
Behind the stellar play of Jonathan Quick, the resurgence of their penalty kill and the formation of "That '70s Line 2.0," Los Angeles is well on its way to the 2015 postseason.
Needless to say, things didn't always look so good for the defending champs.
About two weeks ago, they had four teams sitting between them and a playoff berth. After a lethargic start to the season, they finally hit rock bottom in January, losing six of eight home games and finishing with a 3-4-4 record.
|Jan1||Kings 3||Canucks 2|
|Jan 3||Predators 7 (OT)||Kings 6|
|Jan 8||Rangers 4||Kings 3|
|Jan 10||Jets 5 (SO)||Kings 4|
|Jan 12||Maple Leafs 0||Kings 2|
|Jan 14||Devils 5||Kings 3|
|Jan 17||Ducks 3 (SO)||Kings 2|
|Jan 19||Flames 2 (OT)||Kings 1|
|Jan 21||Kings 2||Sharks 4|
|Jan 28||Blackhawks 3||Kings 4|
|Jan 31||Kings 1||Bruins 3|
Not exactly championship-caliber, so why the slow start?
According to Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times, the Kings "played 64 playoff games the last three seasons, the most by any NHL team in a three-season span." She also notes the only other teams to come close are the Stars (1997-98 through 1999-2000) and Red Wings (2006-07 through 2008-09) with 63 each.
If you factor in the brevity of Stanley Cup winners’ shortened summers and add the exhaustion of the Olympic Games last year, it’s not hard to decipher why the production has tapered off recently.
It doesn't, however, excuse the poor judgment on Slava Voynov's part. The 25-year-old Russian Olympian was suspended indefinitely by the Kings and faces impending domestic violence charges stemming from an October incident involving his wife.
Yet in spite of these setbacks, the Kings are currently in the playoff picture. If they want to stay there, here’s what needs to happen:
Quick needs to play like the former Conn Smythe winner he is. Since the start of this season, his save percentage has gradually declined, reaching a season-low of .878 in January.
|Jonathan Quick Game-by-Game Stats|
Before this current streak, his biggest weakness was clearly on special teams—specifically the penalty kill. ESPN’s Ken Woolums sums it up best:
Although the five-on-five struggles have been noticeable, Quick’s greatest weakness this season has been when his team is shorthanded. Quick has an 83.9 save percentage in these situations, worst among any goalie with 200 minutes of ice time in such situations. The skaters in front of him have not performed any worse, as they have allowed 48.4 shots per 60 minutes when shorthanded, third lowest in the league.
Quick has only allowed one power-play goal during the Kings' winning streak and boasts an impressive 8-0-2 record with a .925 save percentage in February. How’s that for turning things around?
Speaking of the penalty kill, the Kings rank 23rd in the league at 79.8 percent. We've seen flashes of greatness during this streak—they've killed a season-high 20 straight penalties following Tuesday's win over Detroit—but to ensure entry into the postseason, they'll need to sustain this play long term.
Of course, Voynov's absence hurts in this regard but not as much as one would think.
Among qualified skaters, blueliners Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin rank first and third in Corsi-for percentage, according to Woolums. When looking at the team collectively, the Kings are first in both Corsi-for percentage (54.8) and on-ice Corsi differential (485), per war-on-ice.com.
In their last win over the Red Wings, they held the league’s best power play (25.2 percent) scoreless.
It would be redundant to reiterate the importance of staying out of the box, but as long as you’re scoring more goals than the other team, it really doesn't matter how many penalties your team takes. And now we've come to the offense—or lack thereof.
L.A. currently sits 18th in goals per game with 2.73. Not exactly jaw-dropping, though that’s never been the Kings’ calling card. Still, it’s surprising to see Tyler Toffoli leading them in scoring (19) when Jeff Carter, Marian Gaborik and Kopitar are on the roster.
Toffoli, Carter and Dwight King have combined to score 14 of the team’s last 26 goals. As long as the big guns step up eventually, the Kings can ride "That '70s Line 2.0" all the way to the promise land.
In order to remain relevant in the playoff race, they’ll also need to play better on the road. The Kings are 9-12-6 away from Staples Center, which is concerning considering 14 of their 23 remaining games are on the road.
If Quick can play up to his world-class caliber and "That '70s Line 2.0" continues to produce, there's no telling what the Kings can accomplish in 2015.
After all, what team in its right mind would feel confident going into a first-round matchup with the former champs?
That was a rhetorical question and here’s the point: The Kings have become synonymous with strong finishes down the stretch under the tutelage of head coach Darryl Sutter.
There’s 2012, when they won the cup as an eighth seed, or the more recent example, overcoming a 3-0 deficit in 2014 en route to their second championship in three years.
In either case, L.A.’s modus operandi of late has been squeaking into the playoffs and then taking them by storm.
Why should 2015 be any different?