Exactly one year ago, the Kings were in the process of barely qualifying for the postseason. In fact, they did so despite losing their final two contests, which consisted of a home and home series with San Jose. That left the team with a final regular season record of 40-27-15, and relegated them to the Western Conference’s eighth and final seed. There was essentially nothing to indicate that the team was about to construct an unprecedented playoff run, that would entail them defeating the top three seeds in their conference, carving out 3-0 leads in all four of their postseason series, winning 10 of their 11 road encounters, and becoming the first eight seed to capture the Stanley Cup.
This was accomplished by assembling an impressive 16-4 record, improving their 2.29 goals per game regular season average to 2.85, and stifling opponents with an NHL best 92.1 penalty kill percentage. The team also benefitted significantly from the exceptional play of Jonathan Quick, who punctuated a very good regular season by improving his performance during the playoffs. He generated a stellar 1.41 goals against average, to go along with a .946 save percentage, and eventually attained the Conn Smythe Trophy as a result. Plus, a mid-season coaching change seemed to have its most profound impact as a component in the team’s exceptional performance, as Darryl Sutter seized the role of a savvy head coach who applied the right style of motivation, and blended it with proficient in game decision making.
Physical Defense Remains Intact
Now, the 2013 postseason is about to commence, the Kings rebounded nicely after winning just three of their initial 10 games, and will eventually reside as either the fourth, fifth or sixth seed. Their home record is 18-4-1 with one contest remaining, while they are 8-12-4 on the road. Even though the roster has undergone only slight alterations, some differences exist within the team as it prepares to defend the cup. In fact, the Kings could arguably be considered as a more formidable opponent this spring. They remain a tight checking defensive unit that may be even stronger along the blue line. They have recently been fortified by the return of Matt Greene, who rejoined the team for their final five regular season games, after missing 42 contests with a back injury. The eight year veteran reestablished his physical prowess during his April 18 return by his registering five hits during his 16:15 of ice time against the Blue Jackets. There have been moments in the subsequent contests in which he has not displayed his normal level of proficiency, due to the long layoff. But his ability to neutralize opposing skaters should return, and combine with his locker room leadership to bolster LA’s efforts at an extremely opportune time. Greene now joins Slava Voynov, Drew Doughty, Rob Scuderi, Jake Muzzin and recently acquired Robyn Regehr in the Kings’ defensive rotation, which could spawn headaches upon opposing scorers.
The Scoring Has Improved
Offensively the Kings might be even stronger this postseason than they were during their 2012 Stanley Cup run, and the numbers certainly suggest that to be true. They are currently 12th with a 2.72 goals per game average, while their power play is 11th at 20 percent. Those results compare favorably to the close of the 2012 regular season, when the Kings were a lowly 29th while averaging 2.29 goals per game, and their power play was ranked 17th at 17 percent. Jeff Carter has been LA’s premier goal scorer throughout the year, and continues to lead the team with 26. However, he has received more assistance in recent weeks, as the goal scoring has become more balanced. Dustin Brown, who had managed just six goals during the teams’ initial 23 games, is now second to Carter with 18. Mike Richards has amassed 12, followed by Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams with 10. It is also noteworthy that Drew Doughty has recently regained his scoring touch, as five of his six goals have occurred since April 6.
The Goaltending Question Looms
Meanwhile, LA’s goaltending has been a frequent topic among observers, and understandably so. Because Quick has not been nearly as effective throughout this regular season. Although he has improved sizably in recent weeks, and at times is repressing the opposition to a similar degree that he did last year. After registering a save percentage of .940 or better just five times five times in his initial 22 performances, Quick has accomplished it in four of his past eight. He currently possesses a 2.46 goals against average, and his best month has been April, when he has manufactured a 2.28. One year ago, he entered the postseason with a 1.95 goals against average, and a .929 save percentage, before becoming even more miserly in the playoffs. That performance will clearly be very difficult to attain again this year.
But since Quick did capture greatness one year ago, Sutter has chosen to take advantage of that vast experience, and start him in 35 contests. This, despite the fact that backup Jonathan Bernier was actually the superior goalie during the regular season. He generated an impressive 1.88 goals against average, a .922 save percentage, and was 9-3-1 during that span. Plus, his most recent loss occurred after 16 days of inactivity, which was very likely a factor. Once the events of the upcoming weeks have played out, it will be apparent whether or not the decision to keep Bernier on the bench, and continue to employ Quick so extensively was correct.
Let The Games Begin
The team will also need to perform better than they did during their final road trip, which consisted of losses at Minnesota and Detroit. And their season finale with San Jose will be a sizable determining factor regarding who they play in the postseason, and whether or not the series will begin at the Staples Center. It currently appears that either the Sharks, Blues or Canucks will ultimately be LA’s first round opponent. Any of those three teams will pose a serious challenge, even if the Kings are legitimately a stronger team right now. It will not be easy to replicate the 3-0 series lead that became last year’s standard result, and there is certainly no guarantee that LA will even capture their initial series. However, last year’s physical style that most teams prefer to avoid is very much present once again. The team can now generate points with greater frequency, and the scoring has become more balanced. The goaltending is unlikely to meet last year’s lofty standards, but Quick is capable of being yet another strength for the team. All of which will make the Kings an extremely daunting opponent in the postseason.