By Stu Hackel
It has never happened before, but all three of the NHL's California-based teams could reach the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Sharks kicked their season into gear in mid-January and returned to the top of the Pacific Division. The Kings, too, shook off their earlier inconsistency and have captured 18 of 24 points so far this month, giving themselves a shot at the fourth seed in the Western Conference. And the Ducks have gone 10-3-1 in their last 14 to take the seventh spot and give themselves a good chance to make the spring party.
The Ducks and the Kings have never appeared in the playoffs together during the same season, but even if we witness a little history next week, the Kings' playoff fortunes took a major hit on Saturday when they lost their top scorer, Anze Kopitar, who broke his ankle in L.A.'s 4-1 win over the Avalanche.
As we mentioned last week in our rundown on major injuries, the Kings had recently lost speedy Justin Williams to a separated shoulder. Even when fully healthy, they are still an offensively shaky group, their 207 goals this season being the second lowest number scored by any playoff contender in the Western Conference, besides the always amazing Predators (204). With 25 goals and 48 assists, Kopitar factored in over one third of the team's offensive production, and if you consider Williams' 22 goals and 35 assists, well, that mean trouble when both are out of action.
The Kings did gain some offensive potential when GM Dean Lombardi made the most heralded pick-up at the trade deadline by dealing for Dustin Penner, who has so-far managed only a pair of goals and four assists in a dozen games for L.A. Dustin Brown, Ryan Smyth and Jarret Stoll know where the net is and how to put the puck in it. But the arsenal is pretty thin after that. (Rich Hammond, who blogs for the Kings website, reported on how the Kings' lines looked in the third period on Saturday after Kopitar went down; they weren't especially frightening.) Of course, the cliched exhortations for others to step up will be the order of the day in L.A.
The playoffs are all about making adjustments, and the Kings will have to adjust ahead of time, starting on Tuesday in Edmonton. What they have going for them is that they already play a strong defensive system under coach Terry Murray, averaging 27.7 shots-against per game, the third-best mark in the NHL, with a strong, deep blueline corps and good goaltending from Jonathan Quick and backup Jonathan Bernier. If you want to offset a loss of scoring, limiting the opposition's offense is the way to do it.
But there are major flaws in the Kings' game. When it comes to execution, most notably in how often they turn the puck over, the Kings are something of a nightmare: 785 times, the third-highest total in the league behind two non-playoff teams, the Oilers andMaple Leafs. Strangely, the Kings are much better at keeping the puck on the road than at home. Most teams do play a safer game away from their own ice, but the discrepancy in the Kings' home and road turnovers (573 vs. 212) is pretty wacky. Tightening up that part of their game, essentially playing a boring road style at home, could be the adjustment they'll have to make.
Another factor working against the Kings in the playoff picture is that a fair chunk of their regular season success has come in the shootout. When teams are offensively challenged, they can play a shutdown game and hope to get to the skills competition, where the outcome can be decided by a goaltending and a fewer number of skilled players. It's one of the reasons why we're not a fan of using this method to determe winners in the NHL, but regardless, them's the rules and the Kings take advantage of them. They've won nine games that have gone to the shootout, tied for the highest total in the league. They've lost there only twice. But that's not how things are done in the postseason, and the more offensively talented players you have, the better your chances in the sudden death five-on-five overtime used in the playoffs. Take away Kopitar and Williams, and those tight, low scoring postseason games just may not go the Kings' way even if they can get through 60 minutes with the score tied. In the regular season, in four-on-four OT, they didn't fare especially well: 1-4 in the five-minute extra stanza.
In the playoffs, of course, anything is possible. The blueline corps could put on the clamps and Quick could stand on his head while Brown, Smyth, Penner and company score timely goals. Maybe Wayne Simmonds or Alex Ponikarovski becomes a surprise hero. But after finally finding their game, injuries have made a good playoff run look like no more than a dream for the Kings.