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The Rough Pacific Division

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
SAN JOSE -- The party never lasts very long in the Pacific Division. Two straight wins can cause a team to jump up in the standings, but two losses lead to an equally steep fall.

The Kings and San Jose Sharks, two preseason favorites for the division crown, have the second of their six meetings tonight, and although both teams are sitting in good spots in the conference standings at the moment, both know that their footing is tenuous.

The Kings and Sharks are tied for fourth place in the conference -- and second in the division -- but have only a three-point lead over ninth-place Nashville. The Kings have the edge over San Jose at the moment, having played one fewer game than the Sharks.

That's little consolation. Right now, all five Pacific teams are on pace for at least 94 points this season, but if the playoffs started today, only three teams would make it.

Sharks coach Todd McLellan today said it's not too early to start looking at these division games as important ones in terms of playing standing.

``I think (players) reminded every day, when they look at the standings,'' McLellan said, ``that you cannot give yourself permission for a night off or a week off, because it's critical that you compete every night for points.

``The division championship will definitely allow you to get into the playoffs. After that, who knows what will happen? You could be second or third in your division and not make it. So I think there's a constant reminder, an external reminder when they look at the standings and they hear people.''

That's why the Kings' victory over the Ducks on Sunday seemed to have extra gravity. The Kings entered that game with a 2-3-0 record against division opponents. With the 4-1 win, the Kings were able to put three points between themselves and Anaheim, and the Kings have five games in hand over the Ducks entering tonight's game.

``Any time you can take advantage of a game against each other like that and win,'' Kings coach Terry Murray said, ``you get some separation and you still have those games, and hopefully you take advantage of it.''

The Sharks enter tonight's game with a 4-0-3 record against Pacific teams.

HE WILL BE BACK

Jonathan Bernier earned strong reviews from Murray following Bernier's 18-save effort in Sunday's victory over the Ducks, and Bernier will likely see action again very soon.

Jonathan Quick will start in goal tonight against the Sharks, but the Kings have another set of back-to-back games on the horizon, on the road against Phoenix on Wednesday and at STAPLES Center against Philadelphia on Thursday.

It's almost certain that Bernier will get one of those games and now, unlike perhaps a couple weeks ago, there will be less hesitation in Murray's mind about that decision.

Bernier, in his last three November starts, allowed 14 goals and lost all three games, but in his last two games -- against the Ducks and Dec. 18 at Nashville -- Bernier won and stopped a combined total of 47 of 49 shots.

``He made some corrections in his game,'' Murray said. ``Our goalie coaches were around for a while and he spent some time with them and he made some adjustments technically. He had a big win against Nashville and he had a big win here again tonight. So I will get back to looking at him more, to get back in our rotation.

``Quick is still going to play the majority of the games, but I have always felt confident in Bernier. I just want to put him in the right situation so he can be successful as a young guy in the National Hockey League.''

FRIENDS AND COUNTRYMEN

From the time he played his first NHL game, on Oct. 6, 2006, until now, Anze Kopitar has been the first and only native of Slovenia to play in the NHL. Now that has changed.

On Monday morning, the Detroit Red Wings called up Jan Mursak, who was expected to be in the lineup for Monday's game. Mursak is five months younger than Kopitar and is a native of Maribor, which is roughly 115 miles from Kopitar's hometown of Jesenice.

Mursak was a sixth-round draft pick of the Red Wings in 2006, one year after the Kings selected Kopitar with the No. 11 overall pick in the 2005 draft. Mursak spent the previous two seasons in the American Hockey League.

``It's really nice to see,'' Kopitar said. ``He's been waiting for this for a long time, so I'm really happy for him. I'm happy for him personally, obviously, and for Slovenian hockey reasons. Hopefully there are more guys to come. I've said it all along. We have some more good young players, and hopefully they can make it, if not to the NHL but to put themselves in a position where they can have a good career and help our national team.''

LIGHTER, STILL EFFECTIVE

After Monday's morning skate, Murray said he would make a game-time decision as to whether or not to include fourth-line enforcer Kevin Westgarth in the lineup.

Murray's long-held tendency is to have a ``heavyweight'' in the lineup, but Westgarth had been scratched from the previous three games. The schedule is a factor. The Kings are in the middle of four games in a five-day span, and Westgarth usually gets limited minutes, which doesn't allow the Kings to roll four lines as much as they would like.

There's also the Kyle Clifford factor. Clifford, the Kings' 19-year-old rookie winger, isn't a heavyweight -- he checks in at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds -- but has shown the willingness to drop gloves with anyone, as has linemate Wayne Simmonds.

Westgarth didn't play Sunday against Anaheim, but Clifford fought Ducks enforcer George Parros while Simmonds fought Corey Perry. Murray said the presence of Clifford and Simmonds makes it easier for him to go without Westgarth on some nights.

``Cliffy and Simmer, both of those guys can play a pretty heavy game, gritty game,'' Murray said. ``And that does enter into the decision as well, as well as the overriding factor, which is the scheduling and the importance of having four line playing pretty regularly.''

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