Life in the Pacific Division can be very confusing these days. A team can wake up one Saturday, happy-go-lucky, and sitting in 1st place in the division and 3rd place in the Western Conference. They may have a game that night, but before game-time, they have already dropped to 2nd in the division and 7th in the West because a division rival won in the afternoon. This team may then lose their game and drop to 3rd in the division and 8th in the conference, not because another division rival has won, but because the race is so tight that a loss drops their winning percentage too far. No matter though, another division rival will still win late that night to solidify the drop to 3rd in the division and 8th in the West.
Welcome to the plight of the Los Angeles Kings and life on the ever so fragile playoff bubble. This past Saturday, they started the day in 1st place in the Pacific and 3rd in the West, but ended the day with 3rd place in the Pacific and 8th in the West. Move forward two days, add another loss, and the Kings suddenly find themselves heading into Wednesday’s action in 4th in the Pacific and 9th in the West, on the outside looking in.
While the playoff race is unbelievably tight and intense right now, one has to question how the Kings even landed in this position on the playoff bubble. A look back at the preseason predictions makes it seem asinine that this is even a topic right now. Though ESPN may not have as much hockey coverage as most would like, they still took the time to have 3 out of 8 of their analysts predict the Kings as the Pacific Division winners. Two of them even had the Kings advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals. If ESPN isn’t quite your style, take a look at TSN’s final question for the Kings going into this season: “With all of the changes made in L.A., is this the year the Kings go deep into the playoffs?” Any question about whether the Kings would even make the playoffs was an afterthought.
If website predictions aren’t good enough for you, how about a video game? EA Sports’ NHL ’12 simulated the Kings into the 5th seed and upsetting 4th seed Detroit in the first round according to NHL.com. Speaking of the NHL’s site, one NHL columnist even predicted a Stanley Cup win for the Kings, though he did question whether unproven playoff performers might lead to another early exit. Wait, early exit, can you have an early exit before the playoffs even start? So back to the original question, it is clear that the Kings were heavily predicted to make the playoffs and make it pretty far, so why are they struggling just to get to the postseason?
Out on the East Coast, the New York Rangers currently hold a 3 point lead for 1st in the Eastern Conference with two weeks left in the season. Ask anyone why the Rangers have been so successful and their answer will be all-star goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Go a step beyond that though, and the answer will be both how consistent Lundqvist has been and how consistent the team has been. The Rangers’ longest losing streak this season is 3 games, and it has only happened twice.
Meanwhile, on the West Coast, the Los Angeles Kings are 1 point out of 8th place in the Western Conference. They too have an all-star goalie that can be credited for their success in Jonathan Quick. However, they have both gotten that high in the standings and dropped that low all because of their consistency, or more accurately, their lack thereof. Despite getting off to a red hot 5-1-1 start, the Kings managed to have two separate 5 game losing streaks within the first two months of the season. The latter of the 5 game losing streaks led to the firing of Coach Terry Murray, who was replaced by Darryl Sutter. The team then took the idea of consistency a bit too far, alternating wins and losses for 12 straight games. Another slide down the standings in February, during which the Kings lost 6 of 7 games, led to the acquisition of Jeff Carter in another shakeup for the team. The team responded positively, going on a 6 game winning streak in March. However, they have lost their last 2 games going into Wednesday, and the team has to be concerned whether this will just turn into another losing streak that finally puts an end to their playoff hopes.
LA’s inability to score has been written about frequently at this point. They rank 29th in goals for per game and 24th in powerplay percentage. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that if a team cannot score, they are not going to win. This has affected the Kings to a simply embarrassing degree this season though. The Kings have lost by a score of 1-0 a total of 6 times this season. That’s 6 games where even one lucky bounce or lucky shot may have gotten them at least 1 point. For a team that is 1 point out of the playoffs, that is a staggering realization to have. While Quick may be doing his job in net to carry this team into the playoffs, the rest of the team certainly isn’t helping.
Taking this one step further, LA has also lost an additional 20 games by 1 goal. Out of the 39 regulation, overtime, and shootout losses that the Kings have suffered, 26 of them have been by 1 goal. The team’s inability to score in clutch moments has left an astounding amount of points on the board, any 2 of which would make the difference between out of the playoffs and 3rd in the Western Conference right now.
With 6 games left, the Kings still have a solid shot at the playoffs. Their postseason fortunes will likely be decided against division rival San Jose in a home and home series in the final 2 games of the season. If they were to win out, a playoff spot is guaranteed, so the Kings control their playoff destiny. However, their inability to come up with big goals in big moments or avoid a losing streak could very well be their downfall in the end. Fans might want to be cautiously optimistic about making their playoff plans this year.