The Kings have passed the one-quarter mark of the NHL season as the leaders in the Pacific Division, an enviable spot at any time and an especially good place for a team that underwent significant changes last summer and needed time to recalibrate.
The Kings were 13-8-1 and had 27 points as they prepared to face the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday at Staples Center. The matchup featured the two teams that have alternated as Stanley Cup champions the last four seasons and a bonus attraction: Chicago right wing and NHL scoring leader Patrick Kane had an 18-game points streak, matching the all-time longest streak compiled by an American-born player.
"Pat Kane's having a career year," said Kings associate coach John Stevens, who pinch-hit for Coach Darryl Sutter in speaking to reporters after Saturday's morning skate. "He's a danger all the time and he's got a little chemistry with the [Artemi] Panarin kid. ... He's probably the best player in the league at utilizing the top half of the zone offensively. He's as good an open-ice player as there is in the league."
Defenseman Drew Doughty was sure to get a lot of ice time against Kane, an opportunity that fit with Doughty's enjoyment of facing the significant challenge presented by the Blackhawks.
"I see Chicago as a massive rival of ours," Doughty said. "They've won the Cup two of the last four years and so have we, and we want to get that Cup back. We want nothing more but to gain that back, and that starts with beating them in regular-season games."
Improving the Kings' regular-season record is a topic General Manager Dean Lombardi has emphasized to players this season. The Kings were 11-6-5 with 27 points after 22 games last season but endured a 3-7-5 slump in December and January and did not reach the playoffs. Lombardi said he has told players to push themselves to reach their collective potential before the playoffs.
"It's the challenge of raising our level in the regular season," he said. "One of the problems we've had is you have a good run and then you fall into this win two, lose two type of thing. And I think that's the next step for this team, to realize there's a winning percentage during the regular season that they should aspire to that at a level that, quite frankly, we haven't achieved.
"They've earned their stripes in the playoffs but there's another level for them. You always hear the word 'urgency.' At times it can be overused. But I think that is a challenge for them that they need to climb, and they've talked about it. It is always about getting better, but this is an area where we have not, even winning the Cups, been where we need to be."
There are a few areas that will need improvement. Their offense is still too dependent on the Milan Lucic-Jeff Carter-Tyler Toffoli line, Dustin Brown (two goals in 22 games) has struggled offensively, and their defense corps lacks its old depth.
On the plus side, Lombardi said defenseman Alec Martinez has stepped up, defensive "pillars" Doughty and Jake Muzzin are only now approaching their prime, and younger players are growing into the leadership roles vacated by the departures of Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards and Justin Williams.
"My sense is that I do think they learned from last year. I do sense that," Lombardi said. "I think it's a very different mind-set than we felt last year. We talked so many times during last year it seemed like we were all grumpy. It's those things you feel.
"There is an evolution taking place in terms of those younger players moving into their prime assuming responsibility, and assuming responsibility essentially for what happened last year. And that's the whole point. That's where you can learn from the travesty of last year. It's like anything else — generally it's failure that's the best teacher."