I swear I’ve thought this one through. The Los Angeles Kings just passed the halfway point of their season, and have built a somewhat comfortable perch atop the struggling Pacific Division. Given the manner in which the team has played, and the general miscues that the rest of the division seems to endure on a nightly basis, it would be difficult to envision a serious threat to L.A.’s throne. After missing the playoffs a season ago, the Kings are as poised as ever to return, and return as division champions to boot.
But that might not be all they are poised to do.
40 games remain in the Kings regular season, and I think the club needs to consider all of their options. That includes the outside chance of a Pacific team rising up the ranks and attempting to storm the castle, and it also includes the potential to seriously contend for the President’s Trophy as the team with the most points at the conclusion of the season. Yes, I’m serious, and no, I’m not inebriated. The Kings have a realistic chance to pass multiple teams and win the President’s Trophy at the conclusion of the year.
Again, I’m not crazy. To quote Eugene Levy in the movie Splash, if I have any friends, you can ask them. Of course there are various obstacles in L.A’s way, and the betting odds would not be in your favor, but the NHL thrives on parity. This is the same league that saw an 8-seed (also the Kings) win the Stanley Cup in 2012, and once had a Conference Final matchup of the two lowest possible seeds (7-Seed Philadelphia beat 8-Seed Montreal in 2010). What’s cold one day becomes hot the next, and vice-versa.
And remember last season? On this date in 2015, the Minnesota Wild had the third worst record in the Western Conference with just 41 points. They proceeded to go on a tear similar to Rabbit at the end of 8 Mile, and “lose themselves” en route to a playoff spot and a first round series victory. The New York Rangers, who eventually won the President’s Trophy, were sitting eight points back of the lead and fifth in their own conference one year ago. The Broadway Blue Shirts turned it on, and became the most dominant team in hockey in the final half of the season. Every year somebody goes on a hot streak that takes the NHL by storm, and I am absolutely considering the Kings this go-round.
Now in order to complete this tall task, L.A. will have to deal with a few notable contenders. Here are the three most serious threats, starting with the blatantly obvious top dog:
This is the best Washington Capitals team since Alex Ovechkin was drafted, and maybe, probably, of all-time. There were two things you could always knock the Capitals for since the Great 8 arrived: a lack of secondary scoring, and no commitment to defense whatsoever. Well the latter was fixed the day Barry Trotz arrived as head coach, bringing with him the same mindset that overachieved greatly in Nashville. Trotz got his star players in Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom to commit, and the rest of the team followed suit instantly.
The secondary scoring took some time, but has finally reached levels of lethal proportions. The Capitals waited three years for forward Evgeny Kuznetsov to leave his native Russia for D.C., and the wait was clearly worth it for his silky hands and smooth moves. The additions of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams has added a level of skilled-grit that the roster was sorely lacking when it mattered most.
Of course, it’s always a bonus when you have this guy, who just happened to score his 500th career goal:
801 games. Only four players have done it faster, and they’re NHL immortals. Alex Ovechkin has his team believing that this is their year, and you can see it in the team’s reaction to his special moment.
For the Kings, catching the Capitals will be the hardest chore in their race for the President’s Trophy. But are we sure the Capitals can sustain this? Remember, this is a team that has never reached a Conference Final in the Ovechkin era. Every year the general public thinks Washington will finally get over the hump, they fall victim to a long slump. Sometimes that slump occurs in the regular season, which would give the Kings the opening they need to make a major push. Braden Holtby looks like a Vezina front-runner between the pipes, but you’d have to think he’ll rejoin us in our current solar system (as Ilya Bryzgalov told me to call it) at some point. I also think that a team like the Rangers, who have been battling injuries all winter, can be the pesky thorn in the Capitals’ side once their health is restored.
After the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, I bought a lot of stock in the Dallas Stars’ future. With the best young 1-2 scoring punch in the NHL, a solid option at goalie, and no major glaring weaknesses, I felt confident they would build on their testy first round series against the Anaheim Ducks. Unfortunately, I got duped last year like I was buying penny stocks from the Wolf of Wall Street. The Stars were bitten by the injury bug, couldn’t shore up their back-end when they needed it, and looked the part of a youthful immature team at times.
This season is entirely different in Big D. All-world forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have grown up, sitting second and third respectively among the NHL’s scoring leaders. The Stars have scored an astonishing 147 goals this season, ten more than second place Washington (noticing a theme here?). When the Stars hit the ice, it’s not a game as much as it’s a rock concert. Patrick Sharp has had a solid bounce-back year (37 points), and defenseman John Klingberg is one of the fastest rising stars this league has on the blue line.
As great as it’s been to be a hockey fan in Dallas this year, I see this team susceptible for a second-half slip for two reasons. Firstly, the Stars high-octane goal scoring is still masking its biggest weakness. Antti Niemi and Kari Lehtonen have effectively split time at goalie, and neither ranks in the top half of the league in goals against average. If the scoring goes down, will Dallas start dropping some points in the standings? We’ve already started to see signs of this, as the Stars are 4-4-2 in their last 10 games (with a three game losing streak in that run).
The second reason is more straightforward. The Central division is the best in all of hockey. The Blackhawks are certified champions (and on the rise), the Blues are a physical team that nobody wants to play against, the Wild still have a balanced attack with no major holes, and the Predators may have just found the answer to their one true weakness in acquiring goal-scorer Ryan Johansen from the Blue Jackets. Even the lower-tier clubs like the Avalanche and Jets are formidable foes, and will make it difficult for the Stars to rack up easy wins.
Dallas may win the President’s Trophy, but to do so they will face longer odds than Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Running Man.” Think taking out Jesse “The Body” Ventura, Jim Brown, and Richard Dawson was tough? Try handling the Blues, Blackhawks, and Predators on a three game road swing.
How are these guys still here? Really? GET OFF THE STAGE PLEASE! The Hawks were buried in their division gauntlet two weeks ago, but have since ripped off seven straight wins. Patrick Kane leads the league in scoring, Artemi Panarin has come out of nowhere to be a rookie of the year favorite, and the Blackhawks continue to giggle in the face of rebuilding. This team is Michael Myers, Freddy Krueger, and Jason Voorhees all rolled into one.
Everybody should damn well know what this team is capable of by now. If you don’t, then I really can’t help you. All I’ll suggest is that the Kings are very glad that Chicago is not milling around at the bottom of the Central division, looming as a potential first round matchup. The Blackhawks will have to deal with the same issues as the Stars (brutal division, goaltending issues, Corey Crawford’s glove hand), and the added pressure of facing an opponent’s best shot every night. But then again, Chicago laughs, dangles, and snipes in the face of pressure.
Will the Kings Go For It?
As the season winds down, I think this will be the most intriguing subplot for L.A.. How much will they really pursue the best regular season record? Darryl Sutter can’t possibly play Jonathan Quick in-goal as much down the stretch as he did last year, but his starts will be very telling for this race. Jhonas Enroth has proven to be more than competent as a backup netminder, but his continued playing time could serve as a white flag of sorts in the President’s Trophy race.
Other roster moves and lineup decisions could also make a difference for the Kings. Will they play newcomer Vinny Lecavalier at all costs, regardless of his play? And lest we forget the huge factor injuries will most likely play for the President’s Trophy contenders. The Kings have proven that they can play dominant defensive hockey, battle back from deficits, and wear teams out with every skater in their lineup. If they continue to reign supreme in the Pacific, they might just have the easiest path to the best record in 2015-16.
With three months of grueling hockey remaining, the battle for the most points is just getting started. Bet at your own risk.