Los Angeles Kings: Things Are Coming Together…For Now, Anyway

ANALYSIS: Things appear to be coming together for the Los Angeles Kings, who are on a 5-1-1 hot streak. But can they keep it going?

LOS ANGELES — Last season, the Los Angeles Kings stumbled and bumbled their way out of the gate and found themselves way, way out of playoff contention before mid-December. But this season, about a week into February, the Kings are still in the hunt.

Indeed, after fifty games, the Kings are one game above the .500 mark with a 22-21-7 record, good for 51 points in the standings and just four points out of a playoff spot going into action on February 7. They are also just six points out of fifth place in the Western Conference.

OK…I know what some of you are probably thinking…

“What’s that you say? Above the .500 mark? Just four points out of a playoff spot? Six points away from fifth in the conference? C’mon!”

Believe it or not, it is all true and what a far cry that is from last season when the Kings were ten games under the .500 mark after fifty games with a 19-29-2 record, good for forty points—they were deep in a black hole as far as making the playoffs was concerned.

Despite the fact that the Kings are still on the outside looking in in terms of being in the mix for the playoffs, if you do the math, they are eleven points ahead of where they were last season, a considerable improvement.

But with 21 of their remaining 32 games on the road, the question remains…

Are these guys for real, or are they just teasing their long-suffering fans once again?

If their recent play is any indication, the Kings just might be for real, at least in terms of qualifying for post-season play is concerned.

Prior to the All-Star break, the Kings had lost five out of their previous six games and were reeling, spiraling out of control, circling the drain…you get the idea. No matter what you called it, they were on the verge of falling off the face of the Earth in terms of their playoff hopes.

But since that time, the Kings have been hot, winning five out of their last seven games (5-1-1), earning eleven out of a possible fourteen points in the standings and they are getting the job done in several ways.

One factor in the Kings’ recent success is that they have finally found their offensive game. Indeed, prior to the All-Star break, they were ranked dead last in the National Hockey League, averaging a measly 2.37 goals per game. But during this seven-game span, they are averaging 3.57 goals per game and in the five wins, they scored five goals three times and scored six at Colorado on January 21.

The offense is being led by the line of Kyle Calder on left wing and Dustin Brown on right wing, with Jarret Stoll at center. This line has combined for twelve goals and sixteen assists for 28 points over the seven games, with Dustin Brown leading the way with six goals and six assists for twelve points.

Perhaps even bigger is the sudden resurgence of Calder, who is not expected to be a major contributor on the scoresheet. Nevertheless, Calder has contributed three goals with five assists for eight points in the seven games.

Even Stoll, who had been struggling off and on this season, has tallied three goals with five assists for eight points in the seven games.

Center Anze Kopitar went into the 2008-09 season with the “Star In The Making” label on his back, but has had a relatively quiet season offensively. Over the seven-game stretch, Kopitar has once again looked like that Star In The Making, scoring three goals with five assists for eight point, contributing two goals and an assist in the Kings’ 5-4 win at Washington on February 5.

Winger Alexander Frolov has continued to put up points, scoring four goals and adding four assists for eight points during the hot streak.

Center Michal Handzus, another player who is not expected to be a major contributor on offense, has also been a big contributor during the streak, scoring three goals and adding three assists for six points on top of his solid defensive play, his effectiveness on the forecheck and his strength in the face-off circle. Equally important has been his near-constant presence in front of the opponent’s net to screen the goaltender and help create high quality scoring chances.

As much as the offense has come around of late, the Kings have also gotten solid goaltending from Jonathan Quick, who started the season with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League, the Kings’ primary minor league affiliate.

Quick, who was recalled by the Kings on December 16, 2008, is a wet-behind-the-ears rookie who most did not expect much from. But not only did he allow the Kings to rid themselves of veteran goalie Jason LaBarbera, who was traded to the Vancouver Canucks, but Quick has also earned the lion’s share of starts over fellow netminder Erik Ersberg.

“Quick was pretty good,” Kings head coach Terry Murray told LAKings.com after his team’s victory at Washington. “He’s getting a lot of experience coming through all these new teams that he’s never faced before, all these new players.”

“You come into this building [against] a team that’s lost only three times this year, and he’s facing one of the best goal-scorers in the game [in Alexander Ovechkin] and I thought his composure, his control was good and he’s getting better every time he plays the game,” Murray added.

Quick has started all seven games during the Kings’ hot streak and despite a having a not-so-good 3.41 goals-against average (GAA) during that stretch, he has earned a 5-2-0 record with a .915 save percentage and one shutout.

On the season, Quick has a 9-6-0 record, a 2.47 GAA, a .918 save percentage and three shutouts in 17 appearances.

With the return of defenseman Jack Johnson, who has given the Kings a huge boost on defense with his skating ability and physical play, the Kings have also gotten solid play from another unexpected source.

With defenseman Tom Preissing suffering from vertigo and with defenseman Denis Gauthier serving a five-game suspension, the Kings recalled defenseman Davis Drewiske from the Monarchs and he made his NHL debut on February 3 at Ottawa.

Drewiske, a 6-1, 210-pound native of Hudson, Wisconsin, has played in two games, has not recorded a point while averaging 11:08 of ice time. But the 24-year-old stay-at-home defensemen has not looked out of place at the NHL level.

“Drewiske was very good,” Murray said following the game at Washington. “Young guy, very mature. He played with tremendous poise, made good decisions with the puck in his own end, stayed out of trouble, played heavy. He’s got size and strength and he’s great one-on-one. He impressed all of us.”

Despite the strong play during the Kings’ hot streak, the whole thing could come crashing down if their level of play drops and that could start as early as today when they face one of the top teams in the league, the New Jersey Devils (4:00 PM PST, televised on FSN West in Southern California).

The experienced Devils, who started the Kings on a four-game losing streak with 5-1 a blowout victory at Staples Center on January 10, presents a tremendous challenge to the young, inexperienced Kings.

But maybe…just maybe the Kings have grown up a bit since their last contest against the Devils. In any case, they are fully aware of the task at hand.

“We just have got to keep rolling and we’re right there on the verge or the bubble of the playoffs,” said Brown. “So these road games are going to be big challenges but we need to follow up.”

Can the Kings keep rolling along? The odds are still quite heavily against them, but their chances are certainly better than they have been in recent memory and if they pass the big test today, they will ensure themselves of a winning record on their current five-game road trip and will take another big step towards the playoffs.

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