Landing a playoff spot in the Pacific Division might be a little more challenging this season, Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said Monday.
This was the morning after a lost weekend in which the Kings were shut out twice on the road — by the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks — and Sutter reiterated a point he'd made more than once recently: Given all their injuries and new faces, the Kings' goal is simply to stay in the hunt.
"The way the division is now — it's three teams and the wild cards," Sutter said. "So you've got to stay in the race and that's what we'll do. It won't be like a 10-game evaluation or a two-game evaluation … and we've done pretty well."
The Kings had scheduled an optional skate upon their return and opted for off-ice workouts. They are in the midst of a challenging portion of their schedule, with seven games in 12 days, so rest was the goal.
Last season, the separation in the Pacific Division was significant — the gap between the third-place San Jose Sharks and fourth-place Arizona Coyotes was 20 points at season's end. But two Canadian teams, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames, have improved, and so the Kings just want to bide their time and play through their injuries and hope when they're at full strength they'll be in the mix.
"I found our division always to be tough, even though the points didn't show it," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "It's physically draining to play in this division. But it's good that our division is tough. It makes us more accountable. We have to play better to win hockey games, so it makes us better in the long run."
The Kings play the Ducks on Tuesday at Staples Center in the season's first Battle of Southern California. The Ducks, with Randy Carlyle coaching instead of Bruce Boudreau, are playing a more aggressive style, according to Sutter, a reflection of Carlyle's approach.
"The games are heavy games," Carlyle said of the Southland rivalry. "If you don't come prepared to play a physical brand of hockey, you can get lost on the ice surface against this hockey club."
The Ducks might get one of their key players back. Forward Rickard Rakell, who practiced as a third-line center Monday between Chris Wagner and Antoine Vermette, could make his season debut.
"They've had their pieces in place for quite a bit now," Kings center Anze Kopitar said of the Ducks. "I don't think there are any secrets to their game, by any means. They have a lot of good pieces. They play a physical game for sure, probably more so against us, because of that crosstown rivalry stuff.
"But they have a lot of skill up front and can hurt you at all times if you're not cautious with it."
Nine games into the season, the Kings have yet to win a game in regulation which, in a different era, might have put them far behind. But they have won four times in overtime and so are in pretty good shape.
"I'm not concerned about it, no," Doughty said. "Yeah, we need to be scoring more goals, that's the bottom line. We're not scoring enough goals right now to win games in regulation, but we're going to win in regulation. I'm not worried about it."
Doughty characterized the Kings' recent play as "up and down" but added: "We have no excuses. Everyone's going to talk about the injuries, but that doesn't have an impact on our team right now. We've got to battle through it and that's it."
In addition to goaltender Jonathan Quick, the Kings are also without forward Marian Gaborik, who has yet to play this season. Defenseman Brayden McNabb, who was hurt in St. Louis, is on injured reserve, so the Kings called up veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi from their minor league team in Ontario, Calif. Other moves could soon follow.
Goaltender Peter Budaj, third on the organizational depth chart at the start of the season, has been solid for the Kings.
"No matter if Quick's in net or not," Ducks forward Andrew Cogliano said of the KIngs, "they play so well defensively that they always protect their goalie and they play well in front of them."
Sutter suggested that the Kings haven't been playing in the hard areas of the ice enough to generate scoring chances, spending too much time on the perimeter.
"It seems like we're going down the wings and just throwing pucks off pads," Doughty said. "We're trying to get rebounds but when you're throwing pucks off pads from the perimeter against these types of goalies nowadays, they're going to control the rebounds right into the corner … I think we need to worry more about getting more traffic in front and taking the puck to the net as hard as possible. It's more about getting into the dirty areas right now."
Even when the Kings won or challenged for the Stanley Cup, their identity was usually that of a low-scoring, defense-first team. According to Kopitar, the Kings are not trying to compensate for Quick's absence by paying even greater attention to defense in an effort to help Budaj readjust to the NHL.
"I don't think that's the case really," Kopitar said. "We've gone through stretches when Quickie was in net and we've done the same thing — not be able to score a lot."
KINGS VS. DUCKS
When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m. PDT.
Where: Staples Center.
On the air: TV: Prime, FSW; Radio: 830, 790
Update: Ducks goalie Jonathan Bernier practiced as he recovers from an upper-body muscle injury. He said he's not ready yet, not even to back up John Gibson, "but the last couple of days have been a huge step forward, so hopefully I'm pretty close to coming back."
Kings forward Andy Andreoff (upper body) is considered day to day, a team official said. The Ducks recalled defenseman Shea Theodore for the second time in four days, the latest in daily moves to stay salary cap compliant.