For weeks we've been talking about the precarious situation of the Los Angeles Kings. This is the team that has won the Stanley Cup two of the past three seasons and it has spent most of 2014-15 on the outside looking in, waiting to turn on the switch. Well, after seven consecutive wins, it looks like the switch is back on. I hate to use a cliché, but the Kings just seem like a team that, when its back is against the wall, when it gets to a point where it just absolutely has to win, it somehow manages to pull wins out of its hat.
They look like the L.A. Kings again. Their 2-1 victory against the San Jose Sharks in the Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game on Saturday was an example of what we've seen over the previous six games. There was very good defense, Jonathan Quick made a few key saves, Drew Doughty was excellent and a different guy stepped up offensively. Saturday it was Kyle Clifford and Marian Gaborik. The next night it'll be Jeff Carter and Jordan Nolan. The next night it'll be Dwight King and Dustin Brown.
L.A. is winning games 3-2 or 2-1, and that's when the Kings are at their best. In the past seven games the Kings have quietly turned into the team we know. They play tough defense, score just enough and when there's the rare breakdown, Quick is making the save. We've seen this recipe before. The Kings have it on simmer right now and it's approaching boil.
There are some flaws, of course. The defense isn't as deep as it once was with Willie Mitchell gone and Slava Voynov not playing. There are some younger guys getting NHL minutes than I think the Kings would like, and you have to wonder if Drew Doughty can keep playing 30 minutes a night. I would think they'll be active at the 2015 NHL Trade Deadline looking for a veteran defenseman because the Kings' window is still open. Their players are still in their prime, and when you're this close you have to move some assets to get a veteran defenseman and take another run at the Cup. Now the Kings finally are looking like a team that can.
SOMETHING BREWING IN FLORIDA
Before this season began I think everyone in the NHL would have anticipated the Florida Panthers were in for another rebuilding year. Everyone liked what the Panthers were doing, collecting good young talent. Florida was on the right track. But no one thought the Panthers would have almost as many points as the Boston Bruins with less than 25 games to play.
The Panthers did have a bad, bad loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday. Those are the losses that can't happen when you're chasing a team like Boston for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, because if it comes down to it, you have to say, "Will the Panthers win more games than the Bruins over the last 20?" It's hard to say they will. But despite that loss, there is a lot Florida has to be happy about this season. No. 1 pick Aaron Ekblad has been awesome, Nick Bjugstad is an emerging star, Jonathan Huberdeau has been up and down, but he's playing well now, Aleksander Barkov is playing well and Roberto Luongo has been great behind all those young players.
Florida was on the right track, but it looks like this is a team that's ahead of schedule, and it's a team that's putting a good product on the ice for its fans in south Florida. More importantly, the Panthers made the playoffs three years ago with a surprise division title, but that was a different team than the current one. This is a team that has staying power. You look at the Panthers' stars, they're 19, 20, 21, 22 years old. Even if the Panthers miss the playoffs this season they'll get another high draft pick and general manager Dale Tallon says they have a lot of good young players in the pipeline that are close to reaching the NHL. This is something the fans can wrap their teeth around.
This is a team that has good, young, big guys who are great athletes already playing in the NHL at a high level. It's also a team that looks like it has ownership that will keep a stable GM in place. Ownership realizes they have a good GM in Tallon, who has already taken one team from the bottom of the League to the top in the Chicago Blackhawks. They'll give him a few years to get this team to the promised land, and so far it looks like the Panthers are on their way. Tallon has even begun to lock up his young guys to keep them in the fold and build around them in the future, like he did when he signed Bjugstad to a six-year extension earlier this season. This is a team with a good game plan, some great players and a bright future.