Joffrey Lupul and Jonathan Quick (Graig Abel/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Los Angeles Kings have won just 15 of their first 31 games and are in the playoffs by a whisker, but they also have a history of playing less-than-stellar during the regular season before getting serious for the stretch run of the regular season and the playoffs.
If the Stanley Cup playoffs were to begin right now, the Los Angeles Kings would be in them by the skin of their teeth. They would have limped into the post-season with four losses in their past five. They would enter the tournament with their most productive players in terrible slumps – Anze Kopitar with one goal in his past 13 and Jeff Carter with one in his past 12. Nobody is talking about Drew Doughty as a candidate for the Norris Trophy and Marian Gaborik has alternated between being injured and ineffective.
They’d be preparing to play one of the league's hottest teams, one that has nine wins in it's past 10. That team would be the Chicago Blackhawks and we all know what happened when they faced each other last spring.
So how do you feel if you’re the Kings? Are you worried that, yet again, you’re spinning your wheels a third of the way through the season and your top players are not producing? Or do you take solace in the fact that your team defies all the conventional beliefs in hockey and actually does have a switch that it seems to be able to flip at its leisure?
We've seen the Kings do this time and again. When they won their first Stanley Cup in 2012, they did so as the first eighth seed in NHL history. They needed to be down 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks in the first round before they found their game. And in the Stanley Cup final last spring, they trailed the New York Rangers 2-0 in Games 1 and 2 before rallying for overtime wins.
The Kings are frustrated, there is little doubt about that. After falling to 1-4 in shootouts with a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Toronto Maple Leafs Sunday, the Kings were expressing a certain amount of consternation at they way they’ve played lately. But the fact remains the Kings are still very much in the playoff picture and are just two points behind San Jose and Vancouver in the Pacific Division. Catching Anaheim will be almost impossible, but the Kings will be content to allow the Ducks to have their Presidents' Trophy banner ceremony next season, especially if it means they can raise one to commemorate their second straight Stanley Cup.
“I wouldn’t like to think (they can flip a switch),” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. “When we’re playing desperately, our team is very good. And when we’re kind of just going through the motions and playing games that way, we’re not very good. We need to start playing desperate because we’re losing points and we’re slowly getting out of a playoff spot. We definitely need to start paying attention to the standings and win more games.”
Certainly sounds like a team that seems to think it can flip the switch at any time. Kings coach Darryl Sutter acknowledges it’s difficult to get points in the NHL and maintains the Kings are not taking their foot off the pedal just because it’s early in the season and they have a history of going on great runs. It doesn’t help that the Kings go into every rink as the defending Stanley Cup champions and that all of their opponents use the Kings as the benchmark.
“We’ve played as well as we can,” Sutter said. “We’re a different team, though, from last year. We need great goaltending and we need guys to score big goals.”
And that has been what has hurt the Kings most this season. They have just two players who have hit double digits in goals in Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, players who typically get fewer than 14 minutes of ice time per game. In the game against the Leafs, the Kings got goals from Justin Williams, Dwight King and Gaborik to take the lead, but Carter and Kopitar were complete non-factors offensively. Kopitar, who was playing right wing alongside Carter, had just two shots and two others blocked and looked to be laboring. There has been no injury report but a person in the organization acknowledged that Kopitar has been playing through some nagging injuries since the start of the season.
“Of course it’s frustrating not winning games,” Doughty said. “We’re used to winning and we have a lot of winners on this team. It’s going to have to turn around quickly and it’s going to take our top guys playing the best they can and showing the rest of the guys how to play.”
Not much has gone right for the Kings this season. They were planning on becoming the first team to go to Parliament Hill to share the Stanley Cup with the prime minister, which would have been a big deal for a team that usually ices 14 Canadian-born players every night. But those plans were quashed neither Stephen Harper nor the Stanley Cup was in Ottawa when they were there last week because of the Jean Beliveau funeral.
Some of the Kings players quipped that they’ll just have to win it again this year. Don’t bet against them doing it, but they might want to start making a run for it pretty soon.