A year ago Monday the Kings took a 3-0 playoff series lead over the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks, as goaltender Jonathan Quick made 41 saves and Dustin Brown scored on a rebound in a 1-0 victory at Staples Center. The Kings lost the next game but finished the series in five, the start of the dominance they would display during their march to the Stanley Cup.
This season's playoffs won't start until April 30, delayed by the lockout that postponed the launch of the regular season. The condensed schedule and early-season injuries threw the Kings off-kilter for a while, but their internal clocks seem to be adjusting at just the right time.
A 7-2-2 spurt has given the Kings a good grip on fourth place in the West as they prepare to face fifth-place San Jose on Tuesday. They've been getting better goaltending, excellent balance on defense, and an intensity similar to the unshakable focus they maintained last spring.
Their dramatic 2-1 victory over the Ducks on Saturday might have been as close to a playoff game as the teams have played, a showcase of strong defensive play, physicality and world-class skill on both sides.
Yes, Quick made a bad gamble when he came out to play a rolling puck and lost a race with Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf, who scored into the vacated net. Despite that, Quick has stopped 45 of 48 shots over the last two games and was sharp for the first 40 minutes at Dallas on Tuesday before his teammates abandoned him in a four-goal third period and 5-1 loss.
"I liked our team," Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said Saturday. "We just finished seven of 11 on the road, and the White House [visit], and managed to still win our home games while we were doing it. Without having one day off anywhere there, with all that traveling, I think all of our guys did a good job."
Quick's .898 save percentage remains below the "Mendoza Line" of .900, but he appears as agile he has been since he underwent back surgery last summer. "It seems like he's getting in his groove right now and that's exactly what we need as the end of the season approaches and the playoffs come," defenseman Drew Doughty told NHL.com.
Doughty has been no slouch himself, playing a well-rounded game that reflects his growth and ability to step up during the absence of injured defensemen Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell.
If repeating as Stanley Cup champion were easy, someone would have done it since the Detroit Red Wings won in 1997 and 1998. To do it the Kings probably will have to get through the formidable Chicago Blackhawks, who on Sunday got their fifth straight win and eighth in their last 10. But the way the Kings are playing now should give them as good a chance at back-to-back titles as any team has had in recent years, and that's a good start.
The games before the Games
Last Friday's meeting in New York between representatives of the NHL, players' association, International Ice Hockey Federation and International Olympic Committee was dominated by talk about costs of travel and insurance for NHL players to participate in the Sochi Games next February. There's still every reason to believe an agreement will be forged, but they're not there yet.
According to Hockey Night in Canada, travel costs were estimated at $4 million to $7 million and insurance at $7 million to $10 million. Who pays how much is being disputed. There are also issues about accommodations for players' guests, and about the league's desire to have access to players during the Games.
NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said via email he anticipated having communication on "open issues" this week, though not necessarily in face-to-face meetings.
Getting Jiggy with it
Colorado goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere, disgusted by his team's performance in a 3-1 home loss to Calgary, delivered a scalding scolding to teammates last week.
"Some guys are more worried about their Vegas trip at the end of the season than playing the games, than playing every minute of the games," he told the Denver Post. "Quite frankly, I don't care about your Vegas trip right now. ... It's embarrassing. I'm embarrassed to be here right now. It's not even funny."
Giguere, who acknowledged he had to do his part, has the standing and credentials to make an impact — and his words hit home. The Avalanche is 2-0-1 since then, though it was eliminated from the playoffs on Sunday.
The Red Wings and goaltender Jimmy Howard agreed on a six-year extension worth $31.8 million, though it's not official yet. His salary-cap hit of $5.3 million would rank 11th among goalies next season, which is about right. He has a 2.31 goals-against average and .920 save percentage this season for the still-on-the-playoff-bubble Red Wings.
The NHL approved the Boston Bruins' signing of Swedish forward Carl Soderberg, and he's expected to join them this week with a three-year, $3-million contract. Swedish officials had tried to keep him home but the NHL said the Bruins had taken care of all obligations when they negotiated Soderberg's release from his club, Linkoping.