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Tight Quarters

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

It’s not hard to find an illustration of the National Hockey League’s balance in the Salary Cap Era. Aside from a few teams at the top and one or two teams at the bottom of the standings this season, there isn’t overwhelming data to differentiate amongst the glut of teams vying for the playoffs in either conference.

Parity is indeed among the defining characteristics of today’s game.

“I think the Los Angeles Kings proved that last year,” Darryl Sutter said, referring to the first eight seed to win a championship in professional sports. The Kings are vying to become the first Cup winners to repeat as champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.

The point totals through the first 48 games of last season back up Sutter’s assertion. The science isn’t perfect – there’s an unbalanced schedule in the sample size, and considering out of conference games were on the docket in 2011-12, there would be some slight variation – but last season’s footprint compared against this year’s truncated schedule is another example of the lack of space between teams in the middle of the playoff hunt.

Through 48 games of the 2011-12 season, Los Angeles was in seventh place and Phoenix was in 12th. The two teams met in the Western Conference Finals.

When play began on Monday night, the Kings were in 11th place. They defeated Nashville and leapt all the way up to fifth. Had Anaheim defeated Phoenix that night, Los Angeles would have jumped seven sports to fourth, a spot they eventually earned after beating St. Louis on Tuesday.

“You win one night, you jump a few spots. If you lose, you drop a few,” Alec Martinez said. “There has always been a lot of parity in the west since I’ve been here. I guess it’s just a testament to our side of the league. Everyone plays hard and there are a lot of good hockey clubs.

“That’s why you’ve got to bring it every night.”

The intestinal fortitude required to deal with the unstable ups and downs early in the playoff hunt of a shortened season is an added variable that the coaching staff must prepare the players for. Two weekends ago, Sutter referenced being outside of the playoff picture when he awoke before leading the team to an afternoon win over Colorado that shot his club into the top-eight. When he returned home to put his “jammies” on, due to the results of later games, the team was once again on the outside looking in.

His “park-and-ride” approach includes breaking the season up into segments. From the players’ perspective, the Western Conference’s intense competition is lessened by focusing on the smaller picture.

“I think from day-to-day standpoint you just focus on your next game,” captain Dustin Brown said. “You don’t look at the standings too much on a day-to-day basis, but you keep track of every five games or so. We’re doing six-game segments and trying to focus on those six games. We’ve just got to keep plugging along.”

Eventually teams will separate themselves from the pack, and the surplus of deadlocked teams will be shortened to a handful fighting for the final spots in the conference. Last year, the Kings were one of those teams, and they qualified for the playoffs prior to their second-to-last game of the regular season before a 16-4 playoff run was punctuated by the Stanley Cup being hoisted in Los Angeles for the first time.

That pack separation wasn’t necessarily the case last year, as Detroit’s 65 points would have qualified the Red Wings for the first seed after 48 games. Nashville, last year’s hypothetical sixth seed over the same sample size, had 60 points.

Three-point games that extend past regulation also have an effect in bunching teams together.

“There have been over 40 three-point games in the west, I think,” Brown said on Sunday. “It’s a tight race because there are less games, but this is probably how it is if there was an 82-game schedule, where 20 games in, there are the same standings. It’s going to be tighter down the stretch just because of the lack of games.”

On the other hand there’s the start by the Chicago Blackhawks, which is unprecedented in the salary cap era. At 20-0-3 and 10 points ahead of the West’s current second seed, Anaheim, Chicago has virtually made the playoff push a dash for second place. So all this talk about “parity” is basically excluding the Blackhawks, even if Sutter did say last month that “they’re not on a different planet than us.”

“Chicago and Anaheim are on great rolls, right? So if I wasn’t coaching Los Angeles, I’m going to say there’s going to be an asterisk in the record book this year, and Chicago’s going to get points in 64 straight games,” Sutter said wryly.

“It’ll be a record. All-time record.”

For the other 14 teams in the conference, grabbing as many points by any means necessary becomes paramount in a season in which the term “momentum” doesn’t carry as much weight.

“There’s not enough difference in teams. It’s just a fine line. So I don’t think momentum is anything,” Sutter said. “It’s like you move on in a hurry, always, and if you don’t…you’re not a really strong person or a strong group.”

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