Column: Kings’ growth spurt thrusts them into ‘meaningful games’ amid playoff push

Kings forward Gabe Vilardi celebrates with teammates after scoring.
Kings forward Gabe Vilardi (13) celebrates with teammates after scoring during a 4-2 win over the Seattle Kraken. The Kings are hoping to snap their three-year postseason drought this season.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Todd McLellan heard the phrase often. He certainly knew what it meant, but he just hadn’t lived it during his first two seasons of coaching the Kings through a slow and painful rebuild.

“I kept hearing the term ‘meaningful games later in the year,’ ” he said the other day. “It’s a common term that’s used in sport, and we’re doing that right now. It’s a great thing for our team.”

The NHL’s regular season has about a month left but the Kings are, in many ways, already in postseason mode. With 15 games left on their schedule they’ve put themselves in position to finish in the top three in the Pacific Division and earn an automatic Stanley Cup playoff spot. They might even get home-ice advantage if they hold on to second place ahead of the offense-rich but defense-poor Edmonton Oilers.


Kings defenseman Jordan Spence scores his first NHL goal and Anze Kopitar has a goal and an assist in a 4-2 win over the Seattle Kraken.

That’s a lot to ask of a young team that’s still missing key players because of injuries, but the depth that general manager Rob Blake accumulated over too many dreary losing seasons is beginning to surface and blossom.

“This is the playoffs for us and we’ve shown signs of growth during it,” McLellan said, “and it’s going to have to continue for whatever we have left.”

Their growth was evident in their 4-2 victory over the expansion Seattle Kraken on Saturday at Arena, which gave them five of a possible six points on a homestand that ends Monday with a rematch against the Kraken.

The Kings’ goals were scored by 22-year-old Gabe Vilardi, 34-year-old captain Anze Kopitar, 21-year-old rookie defenseman Jordan Spence — his first in the NHL — and by 23-year-old Sean Durzi, whose output has been a welcome boost for a team that ranked 20th in the NHL in goals for per game (2.87) through Saturday’s action. Durzi scored during a four-on-three advantage, giving the Kings a power-play goal in three straight games for the first time this season. Hardly fearsome, but it’s a start.

Their power play (16.6% success rate) ranked 28th in the NHL through Saturday’s games and that’s not good enough. Neither is their penalty killing, which ranked 25th at 75.3% efficiency even after killing 11 of 12 disadvantages over the last five games.

Top-line left wing Alex Iafallo has gone 21 games — nearly two months — without a goal, though he looked more involved Saturday and set up Kopitar for the goal that gave the Kings a 2-0 lead. And it remains unclear whether Drew Doughty (upper-body injury) will return before the playoffs, which is a concern. He brings Stanley Cup playoff experience that no other defenseman has except Alex Edler, who returned March 17 after missing three months because of a broken ankle but sat out Saturday.

Kings forward Alex Iafallo passes to forward Anze Kopitar to set up a goal by Kopitar against the Kraken.
Kings forward Alex Iafallo (19) passes to forward Anze Kopitar (11) to set up a goal by Kopitar against the Kraken on Saturday.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Taking into account they played a non-playoff team, the Kings still had reasons for optimism as they head into crunch time.

Defenseman Tobias Bjornfot returned Saturday after missing five games because of a lower-body injury and played 21 minutes and 41 seconds with five hits and one blocked shot. “He’s got young legs so he should be able to use them,” McLellan said of the 20-year-old Swede, a 2019 first-round draft pick. “I think when he’s skating and accelerating in and out of the plays, he’s at his best.”

Vilardi, the 2017 first-round pick and 11th overall whose progress was delayed by a back problem in previous seasons, scored his first goal since Oct. 22 by redirecting a pass from Olli Maatta.

Spence, a fourth-round pick in 2019 who showed scoring potential with the minor-league Ontario Reign by scoring four goals and 42 points in 46 games, took advantage of a screen by Carl Grundstrom to score his first NHL goal on a long shot he initially thought might have been tipped. He plans to give the puck to his parents, who were watching from home in the Canadian province of Prince Edward Island. “They sacrificed so much for me,” said Spence, who was born in Australia to a Japanese mother and Canadian father.

With solid contributions from Kopitar, who has two goals and six points in his last five games, and Adrian Kempe, who has three goals and five points in his last five games, the Kings are firmly in the postseason chase and are playing the meaningful games McLellan hadn’t experienced since he took over the Kings in the 2019-20 season.

Alex DeBrincat scores in regulation and tallies the only goal in the shootout to lift the Chicago Blackhawks to a 4-3 shootout win over the Kings.

“It’s called progress. We’re moving forward. There’s satisfaction in that, but it doesn’t end,” said McLellan, who is scheduled to coach his 1,000th NHL game Monday. His record with the Kings is 86-85-22, a .503 point percentage thanks to the NHL’s insistence on awarding loser points to teams that fall in overtime or in a shootout. His overall record, which includes stints with San Jose and Edmonton, is 520-367-112 for a .577 point percentage.

“We’ve still got to grow and move the needle forward.”

That means getting into the playoffs, becoming accustomed to the constant pressure, and learning how to make quick adjustments. They’re not a Cup contender: Calgary and Colorado have the quality depth and scoring potential to overpower them and win the West. But this is a perfect opportunity for their young players to learn on the job and store that knowledge for the near future, when the addition of a top-six scorer through free agency or a trade can lift them to the next level.

McLellan said his team has handled playoff-like pressure well, pointing to the players’ better starts, closer attention to detail, and better checking. Next comes actual playoff pressure, the true measure of how far they have left to go.