The Los Angeles Kings have recovered from a slight bump in the road to win two straight contests and remain in hot pursuit of a Western Conference postseason spot.
While they trail the Calgary Flames by one point in the Pacific Division and the Winnipeg Jets by two in the wild-card race, it feels as though the defending champions are developing another surge of late-season momentum.
Head coach Darryl Sutter’s troops have collectively raised their game, but a few recent developments have transpired to generate this timely upswing in play.
Standout Individual Performances
Obviously, there’s more to his value than production, but the top-line pivot is counted on for offense in addition to his well-rounded skill set.
Against the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers, he simply took over from the opening faceoff, complementing his suffocating puck possession by looking to attack seams instead of limiting his passing to the perimeter:
Sutter added Justin Williams to the unit for a dose of control in the trenches, and that has paired nicely with Marian Gaborik’s shoot-first mentality.
However, this all boils down to Kopitar’s approach.
When he allows himself to try incisive plays, the Kings are awfully tough to beat. When he’s gun-shy, the Kings typically hit a rough patch. It’s that basic.
He’s vital to the club’s fate and appears to be hitting his stride at the most important juncture of the season.
On the back end, Andrej Sekera has proven a terrific addition since coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes. His puck-moving ability and smooth skating represent huge assets to the blue line, and he’s quietly a very effective in-zone defender too.
With that said, the greatest imprint he’s left on L.A.’s performance is on offense.
He’s a crisp passer and avid shooter. Moreover, his poise in possession is superb, as he can lug the puck for chunks of time without coughing it up or putting himself in compromising situations.
He’s also offered a few glimpses reminiscent of this dazzling display from his time with the Carolina Hurricanes—albeit without the finish:
On a team as group-focused and blue-collar as the Kings, he almost seems selfish at times...and that constitutes a breath of fresh air. He takes charge. He possesses the talent to make a difference and, without taking considerable risks, continually flashes it in service of big-picture success.
In his first five games as a King, he registered zero points and a minus-two rating. In the eight games since, he's posted three points and a plus-four rating. He's clearly adjusted to his new surroundings.
Against the Rangers Tuesday night, he saw 26 minutes, 31 seconds of ice time. Drew Doughty, arguably the best rearguard in the entire league, only logged 21 minutes and change.
Yeah, Sekera’s played well lately. Really, really well.
Return of Familiar Faces
Most of the past week’s buzz has surrounded Mike Richards, who was recalled from the AHL and has played in the past two Kings games.
It won’t necessarily show on the scoresheet, but he’s provided strong play in the middle of the ice. His time away from L.A. has visibly helped his confidence, as he’s handling the puck more authoritatively and setting up linemates left and right.
Granted, grinders such as Trevor Lewis, Jordan Nolan and Kyle Clifford aren’t likely to convert on his deft passes:
Nevertheless, his vision and instincts bolster his line and curtail its time spent in the defensive zone. There are fewer one-and-dones, with his unit tilting the action toward the opposition’s end and relieving pressure on the Kings defense.
That was evidenced by a sequence in the first period on Tuesday during which a split-second read culminated in a key marker.
As the Rangers regain possession following a strong shift by the Kings, Richards anticipates the play and foils the Rangers' breakout with an active stick. That touch won't make the highlight reels, but it extended L.A.’s stay on offense and ultimately led to Robyn Regehr’s 1-1 goal seconds later:
With his return, the bottom six is suddenly a stronger group. As a result, the entire forward corps is deeper than it was with Jarret Stoll (upper-body injury) in the fold.
Another figure who enhances the Kings’ ability to come at teams in waves is blueliner Alec Martinez.
The 27-year-old was sidelined for over 20 games with a concussion but looked no worse for the wear in the past two contests. His skating and puck-handling are welcome traits on a defense that has appeared a bit sluggish this season.
At present, each pairing is equipped with a mobile rearguard who looks to drive play and pepper opposing goaltenders. In fact, no Kings defenseman attempts more shots or is better at hitting the target:
|Kings Defensemen in 2014-15 (5-on-5)|
That alters the whole dynamic of the back end.
It’s transitioned from a passive, bend-don’t-break attitude to an assertive, forceful stance. Rather than surviving games, it’s trying to dictate their outcome.
Martinez and Matt Greene haven’t enjoyed completely smooth sailing on the third unit—they’ve struggled with coverage on a couple of occasions—but the former’s presence significantly improves the team’s balance.
From top to bottom, the Kings are shoring up their weaknesses just in time.
Depth is the attribute that has propelled L.A. to the summit in recent years, and the club has regained a healthy measure of it by way of individual turnarounds and returns to the roster.
The Kings are no longer the one-line squad they’ve looked like for most of the 2014-15 season.
Even without an optimal lineup, each forward unit and defensive pairing is contributing to the cause, working in concert to wear opponents down in all three zones.
It took over 70 games, but the reigning champions are finally playing Kings hockey again.