With the same core in place from their 2012 Stanley Cup championship team and a couple of rookies which have made a difference, the Los Angeles Kings have clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the fifth straight season. The Kings haven't reached the playoffs in five straight seasons since 1987-93
The Kings, who clinched Wednesday night with a 4-0 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes, will likely finish third in the Pacific Division, but could reach 100 points for the first time since 2009-10 and for the fourth time in franchise history. They need two wins to set a new club record for wins in a season and three road wins to set a new club record for road wins in a season.
How did they get it done again?
Here are five reasons why the Kings are heading back to the playoffs:
1. Possession is the name of the game
Even though the Kings are first in the NHL in goals-against (2.05 per game) and third in shots-allowed (26.4 per game), it's misguided to call them a defensive team. They are possessive of the puck, not defensive.
The entire premise of the Kings' style is to be a checking and possession team. They never sit back and defend their blue line; they attack and hold onto the puck for long periods of time. They are hard on the puck in the offensive zone. They battle for it and keep it once they get it. That's why their shots-against totals are so low. It has very little to do with how they defend because they're rarely defending.
The puck-possession game hasn't led to consistent offense, as the Kings are No. 25 in the League in scoring (2.43 goals-per-game), but by keeping the puck they are obviously keeping opponents away from the net. That, as much anything else, has led the Kings' sustained success since coach Darryl Sutter took over midway through the 2011-12 season.
2. 'The Professor' and Mr. Jones
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick gets, and deserves, a lot of praise for how good he is. He's among the best in the NHL, maybe the best in the NHL. He's provided more proof of how good he is this season with his 2.03 goals-against average and .916 save percentage.
However, the Kings are heading to the playoffs again in part because of how well Quick's backups played when he was out of the lineup for 24 straight games from mid-November to early January because of a groin injury. The season could have gone in a different direction at that time, but Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones were as good as Quick, combining to help the Kings go 14-7-3 from Nov. 14-Jan. 2.
Jones won his first eight starts before losing three in a row; Scrivens, who was later traded to the Edmonton Oilers, went 6-4-3 in his 13 starts. Jones posted a 1.41 GAA and .950 save percentage during the stretch; Scrivens had a 1.83 GAA and .938 save percentage.
3. Centers of attention
Look down the list of recent Stanley Cup championship teams and check out their depth at the center position.
The Chicago Blackhawks had Jonathan Toews, Michal Handzus, Andrew Shaw and Marcus Kruger last season. The Kings had notable depth in 2012 with Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jarret Stoll and Colin Fraser. The Boston Bruins had (and still have) David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Chris Kelly and Gregory Campbell for their championship in 2011 and their run to the Cup Final last season.
The list goes on and on. Teams don't win without depth down the middle. The Kings still have it.
Kopitar is the Kings' unquestioned No. 1 center, and he's having arguably his best season even though he won't set a career high in any major offensive category. He might be one of the finalists for the Selke Trophy, and he's most definitely the glue that keeps his line, with Justin Williams and Marian Gaborik, together.
Richards has struggled this season and has recently been demoted to fourth-line duty, but he still has 30 assists, wins 54 percent of his faceoffs, and is one of L.A.'s most effective special-teams players. It wouldn't be surprising if he regains his role as the No. 2 center in the playoffs with Jeff Carter on his right wing.
The beauty of the Kings, though, is that Carter can play center too. He has played between rookies Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson since March 22, and he's having one of his best seasons when you factor in his effectiveness in all areas.
Stoll continues to be an effective third-line center, and his line, with captain Dustin Brown and Dwight King, is one of the top third lines in the League. Stoll, Brown and King define the way L.A. wants to play, as they are hard on the puck and are usually able to sustain possession and pressure.
4. Carter's explosiveness and versatility
Kopitar has been the Kings' most dynamic player, but Carter, with his ridiculously quick release, has been their most dynamic scorer. He leads the club with 27 goals and 250 shots on goal in 67 games. He's second behind Kopitar with 49 points.
Carter's goal production has waned in recent games, but that likely has to do with the lack of production he was having as the right wing on the second line with Richards and the added responsibility he has now as the full-time second-line center between Toffoli and Pearson, rookies who have become mainstays in the lineup.
The Kings have gone 6-1-0 since Carter moved to center full time. He had played a handful of games at center prior to that.
His most productive stretch came in December and early January, when he scored 14 goals in 23 games from Dec. 3 through Jan. 21.
5. Doughty at his best
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty is having his finest season in his sixth year in the NHL, but you have to look past the numbers to figure out why.
SOG: 177 | +/-: 18
When Doughty scored a career-high 59 points in his second season, he did so as a shielded defenseman. The Kings let him do what he does best (skate, move the puck, duck deep into the zone for scoring chances), but they paired Doughty with a stay-at-home defender able to clean up any errors.
This season, Doughty has had to be that same skating, puck-moving, risk-taking offensive defenseman, but he has to do it with an eye for what's behind him as well because he isn't playing with a stay-at-home guy like Rob Scuderi and Robyn Regehr anymore.
Jake Muzzin, another puck-moving defenseman, has been Doughty's partner for most of the season. Muzzin has had a solid season, in part because of Doughty, who at times has had to be Muzzin's safety valve the way his previous defense partners were for him.
The best part about it is Doughty hasn't sacrificed his offensive rushes; he and Muzzin have instead been a dynamic pair.