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Hockey

Kings can stop but need more scoring pop as second half of NHL season begins

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Kings forward Jeff Carter (77) skates toward the boards after scoring for the Pacific Division against the Central Division during the NHL All-Star game on Jan. 29.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The Kings were very hospitable over the weekend, allowing the NHL to crash Staples Center for three days of All-Star festivities. 

But they can’t afford to be so kind during the second half of the season. The Kings (24-21-4) are currently one point out of the Western Conference’s last playoff spot despite winning two straight prior to the break. They have not won three straight since a five-game winning streak in late November. 

Their consistent inconsistency has them at a crossroads at the season’s unofficial midpoint. The next 33 games — starting with a 6 p.m. matchup against the Arizona Coyotes on Tuesday — will decide whether the Kings recoil or contend. As they turn the corner, their eyes are fixed on the latter. 

“It’s about doing it night in and night out, we’re still trying to do that,” defenseman Drew Doughty said before the All-Star break. “We’re still trying to do that, but we’ll get it. We know what we have in this locker room and it’s a good, playoff hockey team.”

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What’s going right

Forward Jeff Carter has fueled the Kings while goaltender Peter Budaj has provided surprising stability. 

Carter, who player in the All-Star game with Doughty, is tied for second in the league with 24 goals. He also leads the NHL in game-winning goals with eight and leads the Kings with 43 points. 

The 34-year-old Budaj was playing in the American Hockey League at the start of the season, but was quickly called up to the Kings when goaltender Jonathan Quick injured his groin on opening night. Quick remains sidelined — and there is no definitive timetable for his return — leaving Budaj to make 42 appearances in the first half. 

Budaj has a 22-14-3 record and 2.06 goals-against average, which has the Kings ranked fifth in the league in goals allowed per game. This is already his first 20-win season since 2008–09, when he was playing for the Colorado Avalanche. He also has a career-high five shutouts. 

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“He’s been awesome,” Doughty said. “Everyone obviously wants to blame where we are in the standings kind of because we have guys injured like Quick, [Tyler] Toffoli and guys like that. But [Budaj] has done an amazing job for us.”

What needs fixing

The Kings’ inconsistency, which often hung a cloud over their first 49 games, can be partly tied to a lack of offensive depth. 

After Carter, the Kings’ next highest first-half scorer was Tanner Pearson with 15 goals. After that, Doughty and Toffoli are tied with eight. The problem is that Doughty is a defenseman and Toffoli has been out with a lower-body injury since Dec. 20, illustrating the absence of a third scoring forward. 

Anze Kopitar, despite leading the team with 22 assists, has just five goals in 43 games. Marian Gaborik, who missed the start of the season with a broken foot, has five in 27 games. The Kings need to locate another scoring source in order to avoid the offensive droughts that spotted the first half. 

Toffoli participated in drills during the Kings’ morning skate before a win over the Carolina Hurricanes last Thursday. He and center Nic Dowd (lower-body injury) seem to be nearing a return. 

What’s ahead

The Kings play just five home games in February but have a seven-game homestand to start March. They finish with five games in April, four at Staples Center, and end the season on the road against the Ducks. 

The first challenge of the second half is a four-game trip that includes matchups with the Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers. 

NEXT UP

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KINGS AT ARIZONA COYOTES

When: Tuesday, 6 p.m. PST. 

Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale, Ariz. 

On the air: TV: Fox Sports West; Radio: 790

Update: The Coyotes (16-26-6) have struggled all season in front of All-Star goaltender Mike Smith. The Kings placed Matt Greene on injured reserve  Monday retroactive to Jan. 20. The defenseman has been dealing with lingering injuries in his back and groin and had missed the previous four games.

jesse.dougherty@latimes.com

Twitter: @dougherty_jesse


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