Happy and reassuring playoff memories for the Kings can provide only so much comfort to a faltering hockey team in search of solutions.
The calendar is quickly becoming the Kings’ adversary. They are three points out of a playoff spot, with Dallas and Colorado closing fast and furiously in the Western Conference.
Game No. 48 on the Kings’ schedule is against none other than the Chicago Blackhawks, a familiar postseason antagonist. It is arguably one of the best (current) rivalries, with the Kings winning the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014 and Chicago in 2013.
The Blackhawks needed to beat the Kings in the Western Conference finals in 2013 and the Kings defeated Chicago at the same juncture in June, needing overtime in Game 7 at United Center.
“We know every time that we face them we’re in for a tough night,” Kings forward Jeff Carter said. “We look at other teams around the league, they’re one of the teams we try to match up against.
“In the end, like [Kings Coach] Darryl [Sutter] says, ‘It usually runs through Chicago.’”
There is a strong theme of respect between the teams. Sutter and his Blackhawks’ counterpart, Joel Quenneville, are two of the league’s more successful figures. Sutter has deep roots in the Chicago organization as a player, and later as head coach.
“We’ve played each other two years in the playoffs,” Sutter said Tuesday. “Playoffs create rivalries. Playoffs create individual rivalries and it’s harder in a conference; not very often you play each other back-to-back years.
“I look at it more as four of the last five Cups are those two teams. I wouldn’t say it’s a rivalry in terms of bitter, it’s a rivalry because of respect.”
The Blackhawks beat the Kings, 4-1, in their first meeting this regular season, on Nov. 29 at Staples Center. Kings forward Marian Gaborik and Kings defenseman Alec Martinez both missed that game because of injuries.
Chicago forward Patrick Sharp echoed some of the Sutter’s sentiments.
“I don’t think there’s a whole lot of hatred,” Sharp said. “I think there’s a lot of respect on both sides. I think both teams respect what each other’s accomplished. Once you’ve been through the grind a few times, you really appreciate what a team can do to win two championships in recent times.
“I know they’re going to be right there through the thick of things at the end of this year, and we hope we are, too.”
Said Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa, who is Gaborik’s neighbor in Trencin, Slovakia: “It’s huge. It’s great for hockey. When the Kings and Chicago play, lots of people are excited. We are excited because it’s always high-paced games and the last bunch of years we’ve met in the conference finals. That heats it up and I think it’s a great rivalry.
“Both teams have accomplished so much in a short period of time, so there’s a lot of respect.”
So what better springboard for the Kings to start a push after stumbling into the All-Star break? They have not won since Jan. 12 and are 2-3-5 in their last 10 games.
On Tuesday, they sent struggling center Mike Richards — an integral part of their 2012 Cup run — to their minor-league affiliate in Manchester, N.H., after he cleared waivers. Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi said Richards, who had 15 points in 47 games, would report to Manchester on Wednesday.
Richards was a key figure behind the scenes and the effect of his demotion on his remaining teammates was significant. The friendship between Carter and Richards goes back to their early days as teammates in Philadelphia.
“I think it’s tough, obviously,” Carter said. “We’ve got a pretty close team in here. Any time anybody leaves, it’s always tough. We understand that those things happen, but he brought a lot to this room. A lot of stuff, unless you’re in this room, you don’t see.
“It was tough on him too. It’s an opportunity for someone to step up and some of the younger guys to play more, become leaders in the room, what not. We understand it happens, that’s the way it goes. You never want to see anyone leave.”
Richards is gone, for now. Rookie center Nick Shore was recalled from Manchester after the break and is expected to receive more playing time. Another young player, Tyler Toffoli, who has been out since Jan. 9 because of mononucleosis, is hopeful of returning against the Blackhawks after being cleared for contact for the last two practices.
Toffoli’s true breakthrough on the bigger stage came against the Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals, delivering four goals and two assists in that series. He eventually viewed those epic games after the season.
“I think I watched in the summer when I got bored and missed hockey,” Toffoli said. “I mean, I know I can recall just about everything that happened in that series. It was incredible and so much fun and they’re such an incredible team to play against.”
KINGS VS. CHICAGO
On the air: TV: NBC Sports Network; Radio: 790.
Etc.: After practice Tuesday, Sutter used the Anaheim Ducks for comparison when talking about the Kings’ Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik. “Kopi has to be our [Ryan] Getzlaf and Gabby’s got to be our [Corey] Perry,” Sutter said. “What are they asking [Ducks Coach] Bruce Boudreau today? ‘Who’s playing with Getzlaf and Perry?’ Whoever is performing. Pretty logical but just not easy to figure out. We’ve been doing it shift by shift, not game by game or practice by practice.”
Chris Kuc of the Chicago Tribune contributed to this report.