Kings have finally found their groove

Finally, the Kings have become the team they were designed to be: hard-hitting but not reckless, skillful but capable of mucking and grinding when need be — and a division leader with the potential for a long playoff run.

Goaltender Jonathan Quick came up big for them Thursday in a 1-0 shootout victory over the league-leading St. Louis Blues, but he has done that all season. What’s different now is he gets support every game, maybe not in the form of goals Thursday at Staples Center but in blocked shots and solid defensive play and clutch performances throughout the lineup.

The key for them, now that they’ve vaulted from eighth in the West to third, is to make their six-game winning streak and 10-3 surge the start of something better over their final eight games and not their peak this season.

The Kings could have been third, seventh, eighth or ninth after games Thursday depending on how they fared and how the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes performed on other far-flung NHL rinks. It’s that close. Too close to savor a win for any length of time or bemoan a loss.

“It’s certainly great for hockey. It’s great for the fans and it’s good for our players for experience on how to handle different situations,” said Ron Hextall, the Kings’ assistant general manager. “Our players have been through a lot the last couple of years but right now this is excellent experience. You’ve got to play under the gun and when there’s a lot on the line. And that’s what we’re doing right now. This is going to help our guys down the line.

“Every other team is in the same boat. You look at the Phoenixes and San Joses and Colorados, this is what it’s all about.”

It shouldn’t have been this hard, shouldn’t have taken more than three-quarters of the season to put the round pegs in round holes instead of jamming them into square ones.

The acquisition of forward Jeff Carter shortly before the NHL trade deadline has had a ripple effect throughout a team that couldn’t score, and while the Kings remain near the bottom in goals per game they’re putting less pressure on Quick to be perfect.

“It’s almost like the trade, in some senses, has replaced some of the scoring that we expected from Simon Gagne and some from Scott Parse and some from Dustin Penner,” Hextall said. “That has helped putting guys more in their roles, as opposed to expecting more of certain players. But in the sense of our team coming together and playing the type of hockey we expect, the way things have gone recently is what we’ve all expected.”

The Kings’ remaining schedule is challenging. They have three games against definite non-playoff teams but two are against the young Edmonton Oilers, whose speed can shred defenses.

They have only three home games left, starting with the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins on Saturday, and have a four-game trip next week to face the Northwest Division-leading Vancouver Canucks, the slipping-but-still-in-it Calgary Flames, Edmonton and the Minnesota Wild.

The Kings end the season with games against San Jose and at San Jose on April 5 and April 7.

The Coyotes, who also won on Thursday, face the Sharks twice and have three non-playoff opponents in the Ducks, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota. But they’ll also be without their suspended team captain, Shane Doan, for two more games.

Dallas might have the toughest road, with an upcoming home-and-home against Calgary followed by games at Edmonton, Vancouver and San Jose.

The Stars will finish at Nashville — where the Predators might still be chasing home-ice advantage — and at home for St. Louis.

San Jose has a tough schedule too, with two games against Phoenix, two against the Kings, two against Dallas and one each against Colorado and the Ducks.

“Every game is going to get bigger and bigger and the games you play against teams that you’re fighting against, the Calgarys and San Joses, they’re even bigger,” Hextall said. “But every two points you can get in the bank is enormous at this point.”

The Kings got two points and one huge boost in the standings Thursday, with a hint of even better to come.