NEW YORK — Four days in New York in the spring can be a delightful time. Shopping, sightseeing, a night in the theater district to take in a Broadway show. According to Yelp, there are a few decent restaurants in the area as well.
The Los Angeles Kings, however, used four days here to show why they will be the team to beat in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If they get in the playoffs.
That's still a potential problem, but not if they play their final eight games the way they played their previous three.
"We’re playing good hockey as a five-man unit, and we play solid defensively and good offensively," defenseman Andrej Sekera told reporters. Sekera scored his first goal as a King during this New York-area sweep. "We just try to keep pushing it."
The Kings looked every bit like the team that won its second Stanley Cup in three seasons last year during convincing wins against the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers before using a late goal Thursday to beat the New York Islanders.
The defense was suffocating. The forecheck and cycle were machine-like. The goaltending was stellar. And the Kings' best player, Anze Kopitar, was a force of nature with two goals and four assists in three games.
Yeah, throttling a Devils team that uses Jordin Tootoo on its power play doesn't scream "team to be reckoned with," but the Kings laid a beating on the NHL's top team, the Rangers, one night later before controlling the game on Long Island against the well-rested Islanders.
"Everybody knows the importance of these games," Marian Gaborik said after a 3-1 win against the Devils. "We’ve been in this situation before, so everybody gets up for these games. It’s an important road trip. We need to get some points."
This is what the Kings do: coast for about 55 or 60 games, then step on the gas and drive toward a championship. If these three games are any indication, the Kings have the pedal floored.
Here's the carnage from these victories:
|Los Angeles Kings' Three Games In New York (area)|
|New Jersey||W, 3-1||33||20||54.4||.929|
|N.Y. Rangers||W, 4-2||35||36||53.6||.939|
|N.Y. Islanders||W, 3-2||37||27||57.8||.952|
Those are impressive, but they are even more jaw-dropping when you consider they include the Rangers outshooting the Kings 15-4 while trailing by at least two goals for almost the entire third period. Lopsided shot totals like that aren't always about score effects, but as someone who attended that game Tuesday, the Kings sat back like an inconsiderate passenger on a cross-country flight.
The thing that was most evident during these three games, but especially against the Rangers, is the Kings cycle—when it's working, it's nearly unstoppable. Try as they might, teams just can't separate the puck from the Kings when they are working the puck behind the net and along the wall. It has a grinding effect on opposition defensemen and frees their own defensemen for shots, which is why Sekera, Jake Muzzin and Robyn Regehr were able to find the back of the net during their time in New York.
The difference between the Kings now and the Kings, say, 30 games ago, isn't that the cycle game wasn't working; it was that not enough good was coming from it.
“We talked about having a good forecheck,” Gaborik said after the Rangers game. “We stayed close to each other in the offensive zone. We had little give-and-go plays and were activating our D as well. We managed to put pucks on net and drive to the net. We’ve had trouble scoring goals lately.”
"It was really, really good in the first period," Darryl Sutter said after the Rangers game. "I think at points during the game it controlled the game, just the zone time. We’re good at that. That’s what our team does. We spend time with the puck, and we spend time in the offensive zone. You don’t always get rewarded for it, and tonight we did."
Therein lies the problem with declaring the Kings, who now sit one point ahead of the Calgary Flames for the West's final playoff spot, contenders; hockey, like any sport, is a results-oriented business, and despite the underlying numbers showing the Kings playing really, really well, the results weren't coming.
But that's also what makes the Kings so special: They don't let negative results affect them when they're playing well.
Consider the Kings' record before (20-15-12) and after (17-8-2) the All-Star break, but also consider how they got there, which means considering their underlying numbers:
|Los Angeles Kings pre- and post-All-Star break|
Almost nothing has changed for the Kings. Yes, they're a touch better in on-ice shot attempts, but all that's happening now, as Sutter mentioned earlier, is the Kings have been rewarded more often for their puck-possession dominance, which was on full display this week. More pucks toward the net almost always results in more pucks in the net, and considering how often the Kings send pucks toward the net, this type of turnaround was practically inevitable.
It also helps when your best player becomes your best player for an extended period of time.
Since the All-Star break, Kopitar has 22 points in 26 games, after 37 points in 44 games before the break.
Just like the team itself, things were going pretty well for Kopitar before the break, but since the respite, he has been downright dominant.
"Kopi’s our best player," Sutter said, "and after the All-Star Game, I think that our team has played really well since then, and so has Kopi."
But these three games showed why it's so hard to think of the Kings as anything but the team to beat in this year's playoffs.
If they get there.
"I’m not trying to look ahead to what’s going to happen in five or 10 games," Gaborik said. "Take it one game at a time and go from there."
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.