“It’s déjà vu all over again,” the Yankees catcher said in an observation that’s applicable to the Los Angeles Kings’ flair for putting their fans on pins and needles late in the season.
“I think I’ve said it plenty of times, we definitely don’t want to be in this kind of position,” Anze Kopitar said. “But it does seem like we play good hockey when our backs are against the wall.”
The Kings, though, more or less had a playoff spot wrapped up this late in both 2013 and 2014, so the club’s current push – they’re now 15-5-2 in their last 22 games – is more representative of their run three years ago, when they were in a three-way tie for the final Western Conference playoff spot on March 25, 2012. There are multiple scenarios that will allow Los Angeles to clinch a playoff spot; the most simple among them would be to claim more points than Calgary over the season’s final nine games, or to claim two more points than Winnipeg, which has one fewer game remaining than the Kings.
And therein lies the rub: these teams, by and large, have raised their games to match the late season stakes. In their last 10, the Kings and Flames are 6-2-2, the Canucks – still in play with a four-point gap above L.A. – are 7-2-1, and the Jets are 6-4-0.
“Teams are getting better and teams are wanting to make that next step,” Justin Williams said. “We’ve got to kind of hold them off and we’ve got to get ourselves in because we’ve shown that the hardest part is getting in and once you get in, you get a shot.”
As they’ve won two Stanley Cups in three seasons while opening only two of the 11 series they’ve played over that time at home, they’ve clearly proved that. And waiting to provide a boost should Los Angeles secure a playoff berth is Tanner Pearson, who provides speed, forechecking, and important lineup balance, and perhaps Jarret Stoll, who is sidelined indefinitely with an upper-body injury but adds experience, checking and secondary production and would provide an additional two-way option to rookie center Nick Shore.
On the other hand, they already received two key pieces back in the lineup: center Mike Richards and defenseman Alec Martinez. Neither player missed a game in the team’s 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup runs.
“I’ve always said that’s been a big part of our success, that this group has been together for a while, and those two players are a big part of it,” Dustin Brown said. “Obviously they bring a lot of experience.”
So when Richards rejoined the team to open the five-game road trip, there were no inspirational speeches or messages of what to expect. The veteran who has won 26 playoff series between junior and professional hockey – as well as two Stanley Cups, a Calder Cup and an Olympic gold medal – is fully aware of the expectations upheld by a tight-knit, self-policing dressing room.
“Rick’s been around long enough and knows what it takes,” Brown said.
“He doesn’t need a pat on the back, he’s not one of those guys. He just goes out and goes about his business the right way.”
As have the Kings, who opened a five-game road trip with a suffocating win in New Jersey that carried over to a decisive victory over the President’s Trophy-chasing New York Rangers in a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Final. Games against the New York Islanders, Minnesota and Chicago await as part of a trip that brings to mind the 2012 Darryl Sutter line, “There ain’t no weak sisters.”
Los Angeles, though, benefits from intangibles in this situation in that they’ve been there before. Kopitar, who has 15 points in his last 13 games, has lined up against Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf and Jonathan Toews in one-game, winner-take-all match-ups. Brown has scored five game-winning playoff goals, more than any current King.
“We’ve experienced a lot together, and we’ve persevered through a lot together, and we’re champions together, and that will never leave,” Justin Williams said. “So you don’t dwell on those experiences, but you certainly gather what you can and gather confidence knowing that it’s not as big a mountain to climb.”
The competition, though, has been raised compared to previous seasons, and with so many playoff hopefuls looking to put together a run, the bar will be several points raised from previous seasons. The Kings and Flames are on a 96.6-point pace, and the Jets are due for 97.5 points, should all teams continue the point paces that got them to where they are right now. Last year, Dallas qualified for the second wild card berth with 91 points.
There’s excellent parity in the league, and as of Wednesday the top six teams are within two points of each other in the race for the President’s Trophy. The league’s 18th place team, Boston, won the President’s Trophy last year and is only 16 points back of the top overall team in the league this season. Last year, the gap between the top team and the 18th place team was 28 points.
But that type of larger-picture bent isn’t a part of Darryl Sutter’s M.O. It’s about game-to-game performance, individual players maximizing their skill sets, and sublimating wins and losses while recalibrating focus on the next challenge.
In other words, “park and ride.”
“To start off this road trip with four points is huge for us,” Marian Gaborik said. “We just have to take it from here to Long Island.”