After years of talk, talk about hope, about prospects, about the future, the Kings now have something tangible to point to in their rebuilding process: the top of the standings.
The Kings’ 3-2 shootout victory over Dallas, before a sellout crowd at STAPLES Center on Saturday night, coupled with San Jose’s loss to Phoenix, put the Kings atop the Western Conference standings for the first time this season.
There are still four months remaining in the season, but for a team that has scraped the bottom of the conference for the past three seasons, it’s quite an accomplishment.
The Kings have 45 points in 34 games, same as San Jose, but the Kings have 21 wins, two more than San Jose, and that is the first tiebreaker. Calgary, which has 42 points, has three games in hand over the Kings and has 19 victories.
It wasn’t all good news for the Kings. After the game, coach Terry Murray announced that Wayne Simmonds will undergo surgery on Monday to repair the meniscus in his left knee. Simmonds, apparently, injured his knee during the Kings’ victory over Phoenix on Thursday, but Murray said he did not know exactly when the injury took place.
Murray also said that Ryan Smyth – out since Nov. 16 with a lower-body injury -- will not play during the Kings’ three-game trip through Canada, which starts Monday in Vancouver, and that he expects Smyth to return after the ensuing holiday break.
So the Kings face three tough games without two of their top forwards, but at least they’re able to look down at the rest of the conference today.
``Never too high, never too low. Even keel,’’ Kings alternate captain Matt Greene said. That's got to be our mantra, going through these 82 games. This is what we wanted to do, though, to start the year. We wanted to have a good start in this front-loaded schedule, and make sure that we were playing well and give ourselves a chance to be in the mix of it after the halfway point.
``Right now, we accomplished that, and it's just a matter of keeping that going. This is when the games get real tough, when you're going into buildings as the No. 1 team in the conference. Nobody is taking you lightly. Everybody is playing you hard and gearing up for games. Now it's up to us to raise our game to meet theirs.’’
At the start of the season, the Kings were widely expected to contend for a playoff spot, but most pundits figured that spot would be somewhere in the lower half of the conference. With Saturday’s victory, though, the Kings improved to 7-0-1 in their last eight games, and 9-1-1 against Pacific Division teams.
Surprising? You’d have to think so.
``I don't know if you could say surprising,’’ said goalie Jonathan Quick, who had a strong game with 25 saves. ``I knew we had a great team. I knew we had a really good team going into this season. We made some good offseason trades and picked up some guys. I knew, going in, that we were going to have a good club.
``To say that we were going to be first in the conference, at the beginning of the year, that could have been a stretch, but I think the biggest thing for us to do right now is, we can't get too excited about what we've done. We have to (not be) complacent and work and do all the little things that got us up to this point so far. We can't look at the past. We've just got to focus on the next game. It's a long season. We've got 50 games or so left. We just have to keep competing.''
When the Kings hit the ice Saturday, San Jose was trailing in Phoenix. In case the Kings’ players weren’t aware, Murray made it explicitly clear, telling them that they had a chance to be in first place in the conference at the end of the night.
``I’m not trying to motivate the players by saying that,’’ Murray said, ``but certainly I want them to be aware that there’s a good thing, right there, if you just go out and play hard and get a win here tonight.’’
The Kings probably didn’t react quite the way Murray had hoped. They allowed a goal to James Neal 1:22 into the game and trailed 2-1 in the second period but got a big goal from Anze Kopitar with eight seconds remaining in the second period.
After a scoreless third period and overtime, the shootout went to the fourth round without a goal. Michal Handzus scored for the Kings, and Dallas’ Mike Ribeiro put the puck in the net, but after an officials’ conference, it was ruled that Ribeiro’s goal came after Quick had touched the puck. Goals on rebounds are not allowed in shootouts.
So while the Kings celebrated, and will smile at the sight of the standings, they know they have been far from perfect of late.
``I think that stuff is something that can come back and haunt you, playing sloppy and getting those points, when maybe you shouldn’t,’’ Greene said. ``Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving taking these two points, and I’m loving winning games and seeing ourselves high in the standings, but there’s a lot we’ve got to work on here. We’re not the Detroit Red Wings, where you can have an off night, get those two points and come back and play your A game the next night.
``I think we can’t let habits creep into our game. There’s still a lot of things we’ve got to work on in practice, and make sure that we’re not playing these sloppy games. We’re winning games, but at the same time, we’re giving points away. Guys are still getting points and still climbing the standings right there with us. We’ve got to bear down and hopefully win some of these games in regulation.’’
Dallas scored the first goal Saturday before the Kings even had a chance to disturb the other side of the ice. Brad Richards, with the puck on the side boards, whipped a pass past Jack Johnson and Randy Jones and onto the stick of Neal, who beat Quick 1:22 into the game.
The Kings tied the game early in the second period. Justin Williams created a turnover in his own zone, then started a 2-on-1 break with Alexander Frolov. Williams got the pass across, and Frolov's one-time shot beat goalie Alex Auld at the 4:12 mark.
The Kings momentarily thought they had taken the lead, but Handzus' shot hit the post. Shortly thereafter, Jere Lehtinen's centering pass found the stick of Mike Modano, who shot and scored from the slot at the 7:07 mark of the second period.
Kopitar scored, and tied the game 2-2, with eight seconds remaining in the second period, after he picked up the rebound of Sean O'Donnell's point shot and scored from the left side.
``The goal at the end of the second period, by Kopitar, was obviously a huge goal for us,’’ Murray said. ``Seven seconds left, and it energized our guys. I thought we came out and played much better in the third period.’’
LAKings.com's NOTES The Kings now own the top spot in the Western Conference (tied with San Jose in points, but the Kings have more wins)
...The Kings are only one point behind Washington for the best record in the NHL
... The Kings have won four straight for the third time this season
... The Kings have their second eight-game point streak this season. The are 7-0-1 in their last eight. They were 6-0-2 from Oct. 19 to Nov. 4
... The Kings are 11-1-3 in one-goal games. Seven of their last eight games have been one-goal games (7-0-0)
... The Kings are 9-1-1 against the Pacific Division
... The Kings are off to their third-best 34-game start in club history. The 1980-81 club had 47 points (22-9-3) and 1974-75 club had 47 points (18-5-11)
... 9 of the Kings’ last 14 wins against Dallas have been from come-from-behind fashion.
... Jonathan Quick is 7-1-1 with a 2.15 GAA and .925 save percentage in his last nine games.
· Quick has stopped 22 of 31 in the shootout this season (.710)
... Justin Williams has seven points in his last seven games (3-4=7)