Kings on the verge of being eliminated from playoff contention

The Los Angeles Kings are likely to become the first Stanley Cup champions since 2006-07 to miss the playoffs in their defending season.
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Off the Draw

You could say this about the 2013–14 Kings: They knew the secret to must-win games. Seven times last spring they faced elimination, including three Game Sevens on the road. Somehow they channeled enough mojo to win them all in advance of a five-game victory over the Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals.

We’ll find out tonight whether any of that magic was transferred to this year’s club.

Los Angeles has played a number of critical games in the past few weeks, and too often the Kings have come up short. But Thursday night’s game against the Flames in Calgary is their first real no-tomorrow, must-win contest.

L.A. trails the Flames by two points for third place in the Pacific Division and sits three behind the Jets for the second wild card berth in the Western Conference. With just one game on the schedule after this one, the math is unforgiving. The Kings have to beat Calgary on Thursday to keep their playoff hopes alive. That still might not be enough to get them into the postseason, but it’s all they can control.

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They can do it in regulation. They can also do it in overtime or the shootout, although given their abysmal record in extra time (1–7 and 2–8 in OT and the shootout respectively) they probably want to get this win within 60 minutes. Any other result would leave them at them at the mercy of others ... or worse.

An L.A. loss in OT or the shootout would allow the Flames to clinch third place in the Pacific, their first playoff berth since 2009. The Kings’ loser point would also move them to within two points of Winnipeg in the race for the wild card, pending the result of the Jets’ game against the Avalanche. Winnipeg can clinch a playoff spot with a win tonight, or any two points in their final two games.

If Los Angeles loses in regulation, it’s simple: The Kings would become the first reigning champs since the Hurricanes in 2007 to miss the playoffs the season after winning the Stanley Cup.

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And L.A. isn’t the only team facing elimination on Thursday. Over in the East, three of the five that are competing for four spots are in action. The plucky Senators face the toughest challenge, traveling to New York to take on the Rangers. The Blueshirts have won five in a row and are the only team to have beaten goalie Andrew Hammond in regulation, lighting up the rookie sensation for five goals in less than two periods of a 5–1 win on March 26. But with the Presidents’ Trophy already in the bag, there is a chance that the Sens could catch New York napping. With each of their rivals owning the tiebreak over them, Ottawa needs to win Thursday’s game to stay alive.

So do the Bruins, who are playing the second half of a road back-to-back against the Panthers after a thoroughly dispiriting 3–0 loss on Wednesday night in Washington. The B’s are in trouble for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that they’re essentially down to one center. There were 63 face-offs in Wednesday night’s game. Patrice Bergeron took 31 of them. David Krejci still isn’t right after returning from an upper body injury that he suffered last month. Ryan Spooner is game but inexperienced. Gregory Campbell is a shadow of the player he was two years ago. It leaves them short at what had once been a position of strength. But with their finale coming up on Saturday in Tampa, Boston will have to find a way on Thursday night. If they do and Ottawa loses in regulation, their ticket is punched. Lose this one and they could be headed for the lottery.

The Red Wings can clinch on Thursday night with a victory over injury-depleted Montreal, but Detroit has struggled against the Habs this season, going 0-2-1 while being outscored 8–2. A loss would force them into a must-win situation Saturday in Carolina.

It should be a great night for scoreboard watching.


What to watch tonight

Kings at Flames (9 p.m. ET; FS-W, SNW)

Winning on the road has been an issue for the Kings all season, so a must-win game in the Saddledome doesn't bode well for them. Los Angeles comes into this one on 0-3-1 road skid that's seen them outscored 14-5. Calgary's been a thorn in their side, too, taking the first three games of the season series before the Kings finally grabbed a 5-3 home win Feb. 12.

Jonathan Quick is expected to start after inexplicably being given Tuesday night off. He's 2-0-1 with a 1.30 GAA this month. Jonas Hiller, who boasts a .925 lifetime save percentage against Los Angeles, will be between the pipes for the Flames.

Also on tap: Senators at Rangers, 7:00 ET (RDS2, TSN5, MSG); Hurricanes at Flyers, 7:00 ET (FS-CR, CSN-PH); Red Wings at Canadiens, 7:30 ET (FS-D, RDS, SNE, CITYM); Devils at Lightning, 7:30 ET (MSG+, SUN); Bruins at Panthers, 7:30 ET (TVA, NESNplus, FS-F); Blackhawks at Blues, 8:00 ET (NBCSN, CSN-CH); Wild at Predators, 8:00 ET (FS-N, FS-WI, FS-TN); Jets at Avalanche, 9:00 ET (TSN3, ALT); Sharks at Oilers, 9:30 ET (SN360, CSN-CA PLUS); Coyotes at Canucks, 10:00 ET (FS-A, SNP, SNV);

Hot links

• Mark Lazerus says it's up to the Blackhawks to set the stage for Patrick Kane’s return, not to wait for him to swoop in and save the show.

• Dave Molinari writes that the inability—or refusal—of the Penguins to execute a game plan consistently for 60 minutes remains a mystery, as well as the best explanation for their current slide towards the draft lottery.

• Alex Ovechkin had a bus painted in his honor. Because that's how he rolls.

• The New Jersey Devils are breaking from tradition this season and forgoing the issuance of annual awards. Which is how it should be.