Sports

What a difference a year makes for the Kings

After 41 games last season, the Kings were in fourth place in the Pacific Division with 47 points and trailed the first-place Ducks by 11 points.

They had won five times on the road in 19 opportunities and as reigning Stanley Cup champions weren't displaying much of an emotional range.

Halfway through this season, the Kings lead the division with 55 points, nine ahead of second-place Arizona. They've won 13 games on the road, two shy of their total last season.

Coach Darryl Sutter noted the improved confidence level.

"Our players have been better in the tough part of the schedule because the top guys, the stars on our team, didn't like what happened to them last year," Sutter said. "And our young guys, it's not a good feeling for a young player when he hasn't played a playoff game.

"It doesn't matter how many games you've played in the NHL, if you haven't played in a playoff game, you haven't really accomplished much yet. When you go through our group, a lot of these kids, they have not. They've had a year under their belt and that's how you push them."

The Kings completed their first half this season with a 2-1 loss to the St. Louis Blues in a shootout Saturday night at Staples Center. It lasted seven rounds, ending when forward Troy Brouwer beat goalie Jonathan Quick, who smashed his stick in anger.

Sutter and the Kings also were angered by a call in the third period on defenseman Brayden McNabb, a five-minute major for charging and an automatic game misconduct. McNabb backed into Magnus Paajarvi, who was falling after getting slashed by Milan Lucic.

"The guy is falling down and Brayden made contact, so [Paajarvi's] head is right down around [McNabb's knees], so what's your interpretation of it?" Sutter said after the game. "Probably the same as mine."

Rob Blake, the Kings' assistant general manager, said via email: "It was absolutely the wrong call. Not even a minor penalty."

Scoring for the Kings was center Anze Kopitar, his 11th goal. After a slow start, Kopitar has 11 points in the eight games since the Christmas break. Kopitar has been held off the scoresheet in only three games since going pointless at Columbus on Dec. 8.

"He's taken on more of the 'my team mentality.' I think you can see that," Sutter said. "He's demonstrated emotion way more on a game-to-game basis than ever. He has got that attitude: If you want to beat us, 'Come through me.' "

The first half of the season featured defenseman Drew Doughty making his way into the Norris Trophy conversation and, lately, Quick making a push for Vezina Trophy consideration. Quick's 23 victories are second in the league to Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals.

Another intriguing element emerged last week. The Kings acquired veteran center Vinny Lecavalier and defenseman Luke Schenn on Wednesday from the Philadelphia Flyers in exchange for rookie forward Jordan Weal and a future draft pick.

Suddenly, regular forwards Nick Shore and Andy Andreoff were healthy scratches the last two games. And defenseman Jamie McBain has been the odd-man out since Schenn arrived.

"They're really team oriented, but I think there's competition too. The trade, bringing Luke and Vinny in put more competition in the locker room," Sutter said. "That's always important.

"I tell the players, there's the one thing I can control: your ice time. If you're doing, not just what I want but what everybody wants, then you're going to get your ice time. If you don't, then you're not.

"That's just a really honest clear way. We know how close we were last year to making the playoffs. We also know what it is like not to make it. I just keep saying: our only goal is to make the playoffs."

KINGS NEXT UP

VS. DETROIT

When: Monday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Staples Center.

On the air: TV: FS West; Radio: 790.

Update: Red Wings defenseman Jakub Kindl cleared waivers Sunday and the team is planning to activate defenseman Kyle Quincey for the Kings' game, according to the Detroit Free Press.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 11, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "What a difference a year is making for the Kings - Sutter points to an improved confidence level for the team's turnabout." — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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