Kings fans weren’t alone in thinking their team’s season was over, for all practical purposes, after a knee bruise on Oct. 22 took Drew Doughty out of the lineup for a projected eight weeks and fellow defenseman Sean Walker suffered a season-ending knee injury two games later.
“You could feel it. You could feel the ‘What the hell just happened to us?’ moment,” coach Todd McLellan said. “Drew goes out and three periods later Sean is out. Even in our office we were, ‘OK, now what are we going to do? How do we replace two power-play guys? How do we replace two penalty-kill players?’”
Good questions. And they’ve collectively come up with surprisingly successful answers.
Just when the Kings had an excuse to fall apart — when the Kings of a season or two ago would have absorbed blowout losses without much pushback — they came together to win seven straight games and earn points in eight straight, including impressive victories in back-to-back games at Toronto and Montreal last week.
Their 7-0-1 streak has been built on a newly aggressive forecheck that players enjoy, the calming presence of Alex Edler on defense and strong goaltending from Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen. They’re not scoring a lot, but their overall defensive play has put them in the top five in fewest goals against. Five of the games in their streak were 3-2 final scores, with the Kings winning four and losing one in overtime in the trip finale at Winnipeg. Darryl Sutter, who often called the NHL “a 3-2 league” while coaching the Kings to two Stanley Cup championships, was right after all.
General manager Rob Blake said before the season making the playoffs would be “our natural next step. And to talk about that isn’t so far out.” Adding Edler and No. 2 center Phillip Danault as free agents last summer has helped them move forward by providing steadiness on defense and balance up front.
But the biggest difference for the Kings this season is their new sense of responsibility to one another and to the high standard they believe they can uphold. “We trust each other, I feel like, more out there, too, and the system and everything,” said winger Adrian Kempe, who slid down to the third line in practice on Tuesday as the result of Viktor Arvidsson’s emergence from COVID protocol.
It’s still early, but the NHL standings traditionally change little after Thanksgiving, making it noteworthy that the Kings are within easy reach of a playoff position as they open a seven-game homestand Wednesday at Staples Center against dynamic winger Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals.
Ovechkin, who ranks fourth on the NHL’s career goal-scoring list at 742 and has a shot to break Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894, has scored 11 goals in 21 career games against the Kings. He will test their tenuous penalty killing — one of their few weaknesses this season — and their resolve to get back to the playoffs after missing out the past three seasons. “We need that low bar to be higher than it’s been the last couple of years,” Kempe said.
They’ve lifted the bar enough to create a challenge they haven’t had to deal with for a while: how to handle success. They had a seven-game winning streak when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NHL in March of 2020 but were so far back at 29-35-6 that they didn’t qualify for the temporarily expanded, 24-team playoff field when play resumed. What happens next, especially against Washington and against Carolina on Saturday, will say a lot about not only who they are but who they might become.
“Two years ago I talked about wanting to see what our team would do when it had a string of success and COVID took it away,” McLellan said after a practice session dominated by special teams work. “We’re watching. We want to see where our guys will go, how they’ll handle prosperity. We’ve handled the other end of it far too many times. But now where it’s prosperous can we keep our foot on the gas? Can we continue to do things right?”
McLellan said the entire coaching staff will be vigilant about making sure players maintain their energy and good habits.
“I think now’s a good time for the staff to be pretty direct with the players. They’re receiving things. They are open,” he said. “And it’s also time for us to make sure that it doesn’t slip. We’ve tried to do that over the past two days in different areas of the game, but the players themselves, I think the group trusts each other a lot more this year than they did last year.”
A little trust can go a long way. “We have to keep doing what we did there on the road trip, and before that,” Edler said. “It’s nothing fancy. We’re just playing the right way and we’ve been getting wins that way.” Enough wins, so far, to turn a season that appeared doomed into a season that could have a happy ending.