From a seemingly endless journey through the Southeast, to Canada to games at home, the message from the Kings’ players has been remarkably consistent.
They were angered and embarrassed by what happened last season — missing the playoffs — and vowed there would not be a repeat of a lost year.
They’ve followed their words. Through 49 games, they are nine points ahead of last season’s pace and already matched their road win total (15) from 2014-15.
The directed-anger approach has been working, the Kings holding a seven-point lead in the Pacific Division at the All-Star Break.
But what comes next in the stretch run for the Kings?
As it turns out, plenty.
“Being able to put teams away,” Kings Assistant General Manager Rob Blake said. “Establish the lead and continue to put teams away. Don’t let them hang around.”
The Kings are 18-4 when leading after two periods. In their final game before the break, they were ahead, 3-2, after two periods with Colorado and lost, 4-3. They lost two leads in that game, including a two-goal, first-period lead.
Another glaring example of struggles to put teams away came against Ottawa on Jan. 16, when the Kings squandered a two-goal lead and lost, 5-3.
“We’ve let a couple of games slip in the third,” Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “They hang on you a little bit and they kind of [hack] you off a little bit because you know you should have won that game.”
General Manager Dean Lombardi pulled off one of the better deals of his tenure, especially in terms of acquisition cost, when he acquired center Vinny Lecavalier and defenseman Luke Schenn on Jan. 6 from the Philadelphia Flyers for youngster Jordan Weal and a future draft pick. Lecavalier has four goals and two assists in 10 games and Schenn fit in on the back end, almost seamlessly.
Lombardi is always looking and will continue to do so — especially in terms of the bottom end of the defense — as the Feb. 29 trade deadline approaches. However, he is limited in his options because the Kings are tight on cap space.
For now, Kings Coach Darryl Sutter has been handling defensemen Jamie McBain and Christian Ehrhoff almost like a relay team, shuttling them in and out of the lineup, hoping one seizes the final D-man spot.
Blake said the stretch run will serve as a time to “find the proper combinations for lines up front,” adding: “When Cliffy [Kyle Clifford] is back, we will be healthy for the first time this season.”
Clifford was sent to the Kings’ American Hockey League affiliate in Ontario on Thursday for a conditioning assignment. He has been out since suffering concussion symptoms following a game Dec. 6 against Tampa Bay.
The Kings started the season without left wing Dwight King, who suffered a broken foot that required surgery in the preseason. King’s return in late December invigorated the Kings, allowing them to play more of a physical game.
Clifford’s return will add to that element.
Another injury forced Sutter to make adjustments and it immediately paid dividends. Center Jeff Carter suffered an upper-body injury on the opening faceoff at Arizona on Dec. 26, and played another shift before leaving the game. He didn’t return to the lineup until Jan. 7.
“We put Kopi [Anze Kopitar] with Looch [Milan Lucic] and Ty [Tyler Toffoli] and they’ve scored together, 13 goals in those 13 games,” Sutter said. “That’s a lot the way the league is.”
“We’re not splitting those guys up,” Sutter said.
That line has helped the Kings’ climb the NHL ladder in goals scored. Long ago, Sutter famously declared that the NHL is a 3-2 league, and made reference to that the other day.
“Two weeks ago, we were 20th [in goals scored], which is not quite good enough. Now we’re up to 14th,” he said. “Everyone thinks that’s a dumb statement, that 3-2 stuff, but it is dead on. If you score three goals a game, that’s 246; it is almost impossible in today’s game.”
Even in their championship seasons, the Kings didn’t have a big lead in the division ... or a lead, for that matter. In fact, they didn’t clinch a playoff spot until the final few days of the 2011-12 season, on the way to their first Stanley Cup title.
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said this team is special.
“If you look around the room and right down the line … this has gotta be one of the best team’s we’ve ever had on paper, without a doubt,” he said. “With all our top guys getting older and more experienced, we’re better that way too.”
This was not meant as a slight to the past teams, ones featuring stay-at-home veterans such as defensemen Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi.
“Those guys were important obviously,” Doughty said. “I don’t mean to say that we’re much better than our Stanley Cup teams. What I’m saying is we should be and don’t think we’ve reached our potential yet.”
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