The Kings punched their ticket to the playoffs more than a week ago, but they're still not in a playoff frame of mind or playing the tight style that's associated with consistent postseason success.
They barely held off the draft lottery-bound Edmonton Oilers on Saturday night, surviving the frantic final minutes for a 6-4 victory at Staples Center that ended a three-game losing streak. But it was closer than it needed to be, and the Kings knew it.
"As of late, we need to clean things up defensively and stuff like that," said left wing Milan Lucic, who tied a career mark with three assists. "I know it's great we got six tonight, but getting four against is kind of unacceptable. We've got to clean that up here, with seven games before the playoffs start, because you can't just flip a switch and expect it to just happen once the playoffs start."
The Kings had separated themselves from the young but erratic Oilers by scoring three times in the second period Saturday, but Edmonton scored twice in the third and swarmed around Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick as tension overtook fans' exultation. It took an empty-net goal by Jeff Carter for the Kings to subdue the Oilers and maintain their three-point lead over the Ducks atop the Pacific Division.
"I think we let some things go a little bit, but for the most part we scored goals at the right time and made big stops," said Tyler Toffoli, who scored twice to help the Kings extend their home winning streak over the Oilers to nine games. "The penalty kill was pretty good. We've got to move on and focus for San Jose."
That game will be Monday, giving the Kings another chance to clean up their act, this time against a division foe.
"We want to get our game 100% going into the playoffs," Toffoli said. "And playing the right way. It's a good sign we're scoring big goals but at the same time we've got to tighten it up a little bit and just get better."
The Kings swept the season series against the Oilers, 5-0, but Edmonton has great individual skill. Rookie Connor McDavid, who scored a goal in the frantic first period and set up the fourth goal, appears to be all that he was advertised. But the Oilers still have many defensive shortcomings, and the Kings capitalized on several of them.
The Kings struck 16 seconds into the game, when Toffoli converted the rebound of a shot by Brayden McNabb. But Jordan Eberle, who had an active first period, made a fine move to the outside to dodge Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin and rifled a wrist shot home at the 38-second mark.
The Oilers took a 2-1 lead at 9:53, after McDavid poked the puck off the stick of veteran center Vincent Lecavalier and flicked a rapid shot past Quick for his 15th goal this season. McDavid, who lost nearly three months to a broken collarbone, has 15 goals and 45 points in 41 games this season.
The Kings pulled even at 10:20, on a play the Oilers challenged on the basis of goaltender interference. And they seemed to have a good case, as replays showed Lucic clipped the leg of goaltender Laurent Brossoit and hampered his ability to stop a shot by Carter. However, the goal was reviewed and allowed to stand.
The Kings scored three times in the second period to build a 5-2 lead and pull away. Toffoli's second goal of the game, at 3:11, was set up by Lucic. Andy Andreoff, in the midst of a scrum in the slot, poked the puck as Brossoit tried to cover it at 13:07. And Trevor Lewis continued the scoring spree with a short-handed goal at 17:26.
Former Duck Patrick Maroon scored a power-play goal from the left circle at 9:22 of the third period to cut the Kings' lead to 5-3, and he was set up by McDavid at 16:50 to trim the lead to 5-4. But Carter found the empty net, allowing the Kings to resume pursuit of first place in the division and the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference.
"This time of year there should be no excuses, no teaching," Lucic said. "Just look forward to being better defensively heading into the next game."