On one level, the Kings’ playoff run mirrored their performance in the regular season, filled with hot runs and times where they were stone cold.
There was a period in November when they played without their starting goaltender and seemingly couldn’t lose. There was a time in January when they got him back and seemingly couldn’t win.
They signaled to the hockey world after the Olympics they were ready to be a factor in the playoffs. On a second level, it was completely different. They were the NHL’s top defensive team but among the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, they were the lowest-scoring. In the postseason, they turned into an offensive force.
Welcome to the upside-down world of the 2014 Kings.
The Kings’ home opener landed on Oct. 7 — coincidentally against the New York Rangers, who were making their first appearance at Staples Center in a couple of years. No Eastern Conference teams crossed over to play in the West during the lockout-shortened previous season.
Who knew at that juncture that the Kings’ first home opponent of the new season would also be the last team to appear there as well?
The first meeting didn’t go particularly well either. The Rangers had a new coach, Alain Vigneault, who was a familiar sight in Los Angeles because of his longtime association with the Vancouver Canucks, and Kings goalie Jonathan Quick gave up an own goal in what finished as a disappointing 3-1 loss. The Kings, who were notoriously poor on the road during the lockout-shortened season, won four of the first six away from Staples and also showed signs of becoming a better team in the shootout, winning four times in the first month, the primary reason they were off to a respectable 9-5 start.
November started ominously for the Kings, with a 4-3 defeat at the hands of the Nashville Predators, the seventh in a stretch of what was effectively their longest homestand of the year — eight out of nine games at the Staples Center. The Kings won the last two — against the Buffalo Sabres and the Vancouver Canucks — and then headed out on the road to play the Sabres in Buffalo on Nov. 12, a night in which Quick strained his groin on an innocent-looking play with 1:20 remaining in overtime. As the Kings left for New York, and a date with all three teams from the metropolitan New York area, Quick headed home to Los Angeles for further evaluation. Quick had been their anchor ever since he won the job full-time in the 2008-09 season and for years, Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi had kept Jonathan Bernier around as an insurance policy. But Bernier was now in Toronto and so the job of replacing Quick fell to Ben Scrivens, who won his first start — 3-2 over the New York Islanders — and then recorded back-to-back shutouts in his next two outings, 2-0 over the New Jersey Devils (in the teams’ first meeting since the 2012 Stanley Cup Final) and 1-0 against the Rangers in the newly renovated Madison Square Garden.
The Kings also won that game without Jeff Carter, who had been played on injured reserve with a lower-body injury, which meant they had a trio of youngsters — Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Linden Vey up from Manchester, N.H., who were getting a taste of life at the NHL level and providing the Kings with a youthful buzz. The win over the Rangers ended the first quarter of the Kings’ season in respectable fashion — with a 14-6-1 record, Anze Kopitar leading the team in scoring with 19 points, Mike Richards next at 17.
And even though he’d only made eight appearances, Scrivens was tops in NHL shutouts. Scrivens had earned the nickname the Professor from his teammates who, along with Coach Darryl Sutter, were still getting to know him. Sutter acknowledged the team also planned to get rookie goalie Martin Jones into some games.
He spoke of a situation when he coached in Calgary and when franchise goalie Miikka Kiprusoff was injured and the backup was pressed into action.
“The goalie’s got to win games. … The No. 1 goalie went out before, the top goalie in the league and another goalie played 10 games and nobody talked about him,” Sutter said. “It was Jamie McLennan. We made the playoffs because of what Jamie McLennan did during that stretch. Maybe that’s what this guy has got to do.”
The Kings came home from that strong Eastern swing and earned points in their next five games (2-0-3) before the last-place Calgary Flames came in and ended a 7-0-4 run, with a 2-1 victory at Staples on the final day of the month.
Jones spent the first month of his NHL career patiently watching from the bench, but when Sutter finally gave him his chance to start, he made one of the most spectacular debuts in NHL goaltending history. The Kings put him in for a game against the Ducks at Honda Center, and it went to overtime, then a shootout and then the shootout seemed to go on forever, Dwight King finally winning it for the Kings.
And Jones stopped all nine shootout attempts that he faced, with a coolness that belied his inexperience. The month belonged to Mr. Jones. The NHL named him the co-rookie of the month and overall, he went 8-0-0 with a 0.98 goals-against average and a .966 save percentage, which made him the first NHL goalie in history to allow less than a goal a game in the first eight games of his career.
Until just before Christmas, the Kings didn’t miss a beat, even without their No.1 goaltender, rattling off a six-game win streak and a 9-1 mark in 10 games, the only blemish on the record a 3-1 loss to the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks on Dec. 15 at Chicago, the end of a much-anticipated trip which started in Canada, where so many of the Kings’ players — such as Drew Doughty and Carter — came from. The Kings topped out at an impressive 25-8-4 on Dec. 21 and so a 5-2 loss to the Dallas Stars two days later was easily dismissed as just a pre-Christmas blip on the radar. But there would be trouble ahead.
The highlight of the month came Jan. 25 when the Kings hosted the Ducks in the first-ever warm-weather outdoor game at Dodger Stadium. It was a seminal moment in the team’s — and the NHL’s history — ice-making technologies having come so far that the NHL’s ice crew created a wholly satisfactory playing surface for the two teams, in a game that ended with a 3-0 Ducks victory. Kings legend Wayne Gretzky dropped the ceremonial first puck and rock legends KISS provided the musical entertainment.
But as much as the Kings wanted to rock and roll all night — and savor the historic nature of the game — they needed a win badly and didn’t get it. It had been a rough month up to that point, going all the way back to Jan. 2, when the Kings were in St. Louis and wrapped up a four-game trip with a 5-0 loss to the Blues, which extended their losing streak to five games.
Officially, the loss to the Blues marked the first game of the second half and there was some good news upon their return — Quick was finally ready to play again, after missing 24 games. He was activated from IR on Jan. 4 and as is often the case with goaltenders, needed time to get his timing down.
The Kings sputtered along, trying to jump-start the offense by pairing Kopitar and Carter together on a line, which worked well enough, except it left little offensive support from the rest of the lineup. After a good start, Richards’ production dried up. Justin Williams, too, had trouble finding the back of the net and it soon became clear to Lombardi that if the Kings wanted to seriously contend for the Stanley Cup, they would probably need scoring reinforcements.
The Olympics in Sochi were acting as a further distraction — Quick and Dustin Brown named to the U.S. team on Jan. 1, Carter and Doughty to the Canadian team Jan. 7, while Kopitar became the central player for Slovenia and defenseman Slava Voynov learned he would play for Russia at a pressure-packed, hometown Olympics.
The NHL took a 17-day break for the Olympics and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Kings, who were reeling by their final game. It turned out to be a 2-1 win over Columbus on Feb. 6, but it left them on a 2-8-1 run going into the Olympic hiatus.
Since reaching their high point of the season just before Christmas, the Kings had won just six out of 22 games (6-14-2) and had fallen out of contention for first place in the Pacific Division.
Six Kings players made the trip to Sochi, while Lombardi and Sutter huddled back at El Segundo to plot strategy for the home stretch, where the Kings were suddenly in a battle just to qualify for the playoffs in the Western Conference. It was during that break that the two hit upon a strategy that ended up paying dividends for the team — they would shift Carter to center, his natural position, and give both Pearson and Toffoli a chance to play bigger minutes down the stretch. And Lombardi started casting his eye toward the NHL trading deadline to see if reinforcements might be available.
The Kings came back from the Olympic break and it was as if a switch had been flipped on. They were on a five-game winning streak on trading-deadline day when Lombardi acquired Marian Gaborik from the Columbus Blue Jackets in exchange for Matt Frattin and two conditional draft choices. Despite being a former 40-goal scorer, Gaborik’s acquisition flew slightly under the NHL radar, as other big names traded places that day, but in the end, few deals made a greater impact on a team’s fortunes.
Lombardi needed Columbus to absorb one half of Gaborik’s expiring $7.5-million contract so the Kings could be salary-cap compliant and they agreed to do it. Almost exactly two years earlier, Lombardi made another major deal with Columbus, adding Carter, who contributed to the 2012 Cup win.
Could history repeat? Sutter believed that Gaborik’s early NHL apprenticeship with the Minnesota Wild under a defense-first coach Jacques Lemaire would make him an easy fit with the Kings.
The plan was for Gaborik to play alongside Kopitar, move Carter to center with Toffoli and Pearson and drop the slumping Richards down the depth chart. But even on the day he made the trade, Lombardi acknowledged that it was partly for today and partly for tomorrow — that if everything worked out, he hoped to sign Gaborik to a contract extension in the summer: “This isn’t a [Thomas] Vanek situation, in my mind, where the player has already said: ‘I want to go to July 1 to test free agency.’”
With the Kings, Lombardi correctly predicted Gaborik didn’t have to be “the centerpiece.”
“He doesn’t have to come here and be the man,” Lombardi said. That’s what I like. Everywhere he’s gone, he’s had to be the box-office guy. Our box office is winning. We have other top players where you just can fit in and not worry about the billboard stuff. A lot of players at his stage would welcome that.”
The Kings continued their wild up-and-down season as they prepared for the playoffs. They won seven in a row coming out of the Olympic break, lost three consecutive, and then won another six straight. By the last week of March, their playoff future was set. They would be the No. 3 seed in the Pacific and play one of two California rivals, the Ducks or the San Jose Sharks, whoever lost the divisional race, in the opening round.
The Kings went 2-2-2 in the final six games of the regular season, all but one of them without Doughty, who was nursing a shoulder injury and was busy healing for the postseason. The Kings finished 46-28-8, one of 10 NHL teams to earn 100 points. But among the 16 teams that qualified for the playoffs, they were the lowest-scoring squad. Still, 46 wins was tied for the most in club history and they won the William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL — 174, including shootout goals. Quick was the only recipient of the award because neither Jones nor Scrivens (who was traded away to Edmonton) played the mandatory 25 games to get their names on the trophy. They also recorded their 1,500th victory as a franchise April 2 versus Phoenix.