With just eight games remaining on their regular season schedule, the Kings are inching closer to securing a coveted playoff spot, which would provide an opportunity to defend their Stanley Cup Championship. While uncertainty remains concerning where they will eventually finish, and a playoff berth has not been clinched, their situation is far more favorable than it was during the first three weeks of the year. At that point, the Kings were seemingly mired in molasses at the onset of what was an issue laden season, as the team did not even vaguely resemble a defending Stanley Cup Champion.
Among the deficiencies was an anemic attack that only managed 2.1 goals per game during their initial 10 contests. That played a sizable role in their alarmingly slow start, which included just three wins during that span. At that point, the Kings found themselves tied for last place in the Western Conference with a paltry eight points. But Darryl Sutter and his team recovered from that sluggish phase to perform with increased effectiveness. That propelled a steady rise in the conference standings, which enabled the Kings to capture fourth place on March 12. While they have migrated between several positions since that time, they are now back in fourth with a total of 48 points.
A Timely Scoring Surge
A major component in their navigation through the standings has been a surge in scoring since that early stage of the season. LA is currently generating 2.85 goals per game, which is the NHL’s eighth best average. That is a notable improvement over the 2.29 that they attained during the 2011-2012 regular season, which placed them just 17th in the league. But it is also the exact number that they amassed during last season’s unforgettable postseason excursion, which is certainly significant.
Their power play has also progressed when compared to last season, as the Kings once again rank eighth at 20%, after managing 17% one year ago. The team is also sixth overall with 28 goals while skating with an advantage, and a team high seven of those tallies have been generated (predictably) by Jeff Carter. His proficiency at placing the puck into the net has been well chronicled throughout the year, and he is presently the NHL’s fourth leading goal scorer. He has also been the leader among Kings in that category, and has accomplished that by a sizable margin.
More Balanced Scoring
17 of his 23 goals were accumulated during LA’s first 23 games. That represented nearly 25% of LA’s total output at that point of the season, which resulted in the overall scoring throughout the Kings’ lineup being very unbalanced. Fortunately, a cluster of Carter’s teammates have recently contributed with far greater frequency. Beginning with Dustin Brown, who had managed just six goals during the teams’ initial 23 games, but is now second to Carter with 15 goals. That has been accomplished in great part by scoring nine times in the past 17 contests. He has also produced seven power play tallies, which ties Carter for the team lead.
But Brown is not the only King who has enhanced his contributions to LA’s scoring in recent weeks. Six of the 10 goals that have been amassed by Justin Williams have been generated since March 28. His season total has been matched by Anze Kopitar, who also leads LA in assists (26), after accumulating one in three straight contests. Mike Richards has nearly attained double digits with his goal scoring, after generating his ninth on April 6. Slava Voynov has joined Carter, Brown, Kopitar, Williams and Richards with 20+ points, on the strength of 18 assists. Even Drew Doughty, who did not score his first goal until the team’s 29th game, and remained stuck with that lone goal through 37 contests, now has scored in three consecutive games. That encompasses the period of time Doughty in which has paired with new teammate Robyn Regehr, and the former Sabre’s presence bodes well for Doughty’s chances to continue his scoring resurgence.
However, it may be necessary for these Kings, along with other potential scorers like Jarret Stoll, rookie defenseman Jake Muzzin, and former first round draft selection Trevor Lewis, to manufacture goals at a pace that surpasses their numbers from last year’s regular season. And maintain their current pace that matches their output from the 2012 postseason. Because both their goaltending and their defense, are not performing at the level that existed during last season’s playoffs. LA is currently allowing an average of 2.45 goals against per game, which is the league’s ninth best. While that number is very respectable, it does not measure up to the exceptional 2.07 average that they achieved in 2011-2012. That was the NHL’s second best average, and yet the Kings somehow managed to shrink that number to a nearly unbelievable 1.50 during the jaunt through the postseason.
Increased Scoring Must Continue
One major reason for the statistical decline has been Jonathan Quick’s inability to replicate his dazzling performance from one year ago. Even though his numbers have slowly improved as the season has progressed, they are vastly different than one year ago. 25 goaltenders have a better goals against average than his 2.58. That is also well above the excellent 1.95 that he produced last season. His .895 save percentage places him just 44th in that category, and is vastly lower than last year’s 9.29.
Conversely, Jonathan Bernier has been outstanding. His 1.86 goals against average is the league’s second best number, and his .922 save percentage is 13th overall. Plus, his composure has blended with consistently strong performances, while enabling him to assemble a 9-2-1 record. Despite Bernier’s ongoing success when given the opportunity, Sutter had been very deliberate in keeping Quick as the starter for nearly 75% of the team’s games. But the head coach has subtly evolved to an even rotation for the Kings’ past six contests.
While Bernier has been the more effective goaltender, he is extremely unproven as a playoff performer at the NHL level. Factoring in that reality with Quick’s somewhat charitable goaltending throughout much of the year, and it would not be practical to expect either LA goalie to provide the same suffocating resistance that Quick delivered last year. Which underscores how critical it is for the Kings to continue their balanced scoring, and to do so at a potent rate. It appears that their shots will need to find the net with more frequency than one year ago, in order for them to generate a deep playoff run. But they are very capable of accomplishing that. And if recurrent scoring is combined with effective goaltending on consistent basis, then defeating the Kings in a seven game series will be an arduous task.