Nobody can accuse the Kings of thinking small. Coach Darryl Sutter talks about getting to 100 points. Willie Mitchell talks about surpassing the San Jose Sharks and winning the Pacific Division.
Both men -- and everyone in the Kings’ locker room -- know the reality, of course, that the Kings are in seventh place in the Western Conference, a mere four points ahead of ninth-place Colorado.
That’s a slim margin. Why, then, the big hopes, as the Kings prepare a 10-week sprint to the finish? Because, in their view, they’re still the talented team that many pundits predicted would win the division and contend for the Stanley Cup. It could be said that the Kings still have a large amount of untapped potential.
The scent of optimism comes from the way the Kings have played in their first 17 games under Sutter. They have retained the defense-first mentality put in place by Terry Murray -- in fact, they’ve improved defensively under Sutter -- but have appeared to be a more motivated, more intense group on offense.
That will be key. The Kings rank last in the NHL in goals scored. Even a modest bump in the goals-scored category -- a half-goal per game, perhaps -- would greatly increase the Kings’ margin for error on a nightly basis. That will be especially important given that the Kings play 20 of their final 32 games on the road, and also have seven grueling sets of back-to-back games in the final 2 1/2 months.
``I think the team has really enjoyed playing for Darryl (Sutter), really enjoyed his passion,’’ Mitchell said. ``You can see that in our game. It’s a much more passionate game out there, for the team as a whole. We still -- at least I do, and I can’t speak for everyone else -- but I have my sights set on San Jose.
``That should be our yardstick, is trying to catch them. Look ahead, and try to catch them. You never know, right? We had a little slump during the year. They could have a little hiccup. Teams usually do, during the course of the season. That should be our big-picture focus. Then in the short term, on game days, it’s doing what we need to do to focus on the next team we’re playing. If we do that, the next thing you know, you’re where you want to be. That’s where we’re going to be putting all our energies during the haul here, because we’ve got a lot of games on the road as well.’’
With 58 points in 50 games, the Kings are slightly ahead of last season’s pace, but that pace was only good enough to land them a seventh-place finish and a first-round series loss to San Jose.
Entering this season, expectations were higher. Murray, before his firing, spoke openly about taking the next step and getting home-ice advantage in at least the first round of the playoffs. While that -- and catching San Jose -- is not out of the sphere of possibility, the fact remains that the Kings are much closer to ninth place than they are to fourth place.
The one line, ``Don’t look behind, someone might be gaining on you,’’ applies here. The Kings’ first priority is to accumulate enough points to earn a ticket to the playoffs. In the past six seasons, since the advent of three-point games, that target number has been 95, 96, 91, 91, 95 and 97 points, respectively.
Some coaches set a target number -- 95 is typically popular -- but Sutter declined to do so in recent days. His message to the players has been, essentially, that anything under 100 points puts a team in danger of missing the playoffs.
``With the parity, or whatever you want to call it, it’s really hard,’’ Sutter said. ``We’re seeing three-point games, three or four times a night. So how do you really know what that (target) number is?
``That number, we could sit down and do it and say, `That looks like the number,’ but I don’t know what it is. The better way to look at it, at the start of the year, is to say you know you need 100 points. That assures you, right? Everything else, you might be one (point) out. It’s a tough thing. I think that’s a good way to look at it, when you go into the start of the season, to say you need 100. Because then you know you’re safe, and that might win your division, depending on how teams do. Some divisions, that wins it easy. Some divisions, you’re fighting for it right to the end.’’
Sutter seems to be more into the ``just get in’’ theory of the playoffs. Having home-ice advantage is nice, yes, but with the aforementioned parity in the league, it’s not everything. Two years ago, in the Eastern Conference playoffs, No. 7 Philadelphia and No. 8 Montreal were the last two teams remaining.
Recent history would seem to indicate that it’s more important to be healthy and playing well going into the playoffs. To that end, the Kings might also face a challenge. Coming out of the break, 20 of their last 32 games are on the road, including seven sets of back-to-back games.
On the other hand, players’ intensity increases and every game starts to take on a playoff-like atmosphere, as Mitchell noted.
``For sure. I find, from having done this a few times, it just seems like time flies by really quickly,’’ Mitchell said. ``The games end up being -- not that they aren’t all important, because g Game 1 is as important as Game 82 -- but it just seems to get magnified at this time of year, just because everyone is so close in the standings and fighting for a playoff spot.
``It’s going to be a big, hard pull for us. Much like anyone else, you just try to stay in it and jockey for position. We feel good, that we’re playing pretty well. We have another gear yet, I think, as a group, but we’re excited just to go forward and prepare for the next one here.’’