Monday, April 14, 2014

3rd in the Pacific: What Could Have Been

On Christmas Eve 2013, the three California teams were arguably the three very best teams in hockey. Leading into the Christmas break, their records atop the Pacific Division were:
1) Anaheim: 27-7-5, 59 points
2) Los Angeles: 25-9-4, 54 points
3) San Jose: 23-8-6, 52 points

Nearing the midpoint of the season, the Kings were in the hunt not just for their first regular season division championship in over 20 years, but for the President's Trophy. Even with Jonathan Quick sitting on the sidelines nursing an injury, they were coming off a strong road trip in which they had shut out the Canadiens 6-0, knocked off the (then) high-flying Maple Leafs 3-1, and curbstomped Ottawa 5-2. A hiccup in Chicago saw them outplay the Hawks but simply not finish (the start of a theme), but they rebounded, winning 3 out of 4 on the ensuing homestand.

Unfortunately for Kings fans, the new year was not very prosperous.

As the Ducks won 18 of 19 games between Dec. 6 and Jan. 15, culminating in a 9-1 pummeling of Vancouver and the Sharks continued to chug along, losing consecutive games only once before shootout losses to Washington and Calgary in late March, the Kings suddenly seemed like the guys in Revenge of the Nerds, which is to say they couldn't score to save their lives.

They lost 5 in a row from Dec. 23 to Jan. 2, scoring six goals in five games and posting goose eggs twice.

They lost another 5 in a row from Jan. 18 to Jan. 25, scoring 8 goals and getting ignominiously shut out in the Dodger Stadium game by the Ducks. (This streak did begin with the preposterous goal-off-the-netting in Detroit, but even if they won that it was still a 4-game losing streak.)

They lost another 4 in a row between Jan. 28 and Feb. 3, scoring only 4 times and suffering another pair of shutouts, before knocking off #Lumbus to go into the Olympic Break on a winning note, though all of the losing had dropped them to 31-22-6 (68 points) by that time, closer to the wild card teams than their California brethren.

Meanwhile going into the Olympics, Anaheim sat at 41-14-5 (87 points) and the Sharks 37-16-6 (80 points).

In other words, between Dec. 23 and Feb. 6, the Kings went 6-13-2. In those 21 games, they were shut out five times and managed to score a total of 33 goals. That's 1.57 goals per game over a quarter of the season!!

In the same time period, the Ducks went 14-7-0. The Sharks went 14-8-0. The Kings fell from 5 points behind the Ducks with a game in hand and 2 points up on the Sharks with the same number of games played to 19 points behind the Ducks and 12 behind San Jose (though they did still have that all-important game in hand on Anaheim!).

In the end, the Kings finished 16 points behind Anaheim and 11 behind San Jose.

But what could have been? I mean, the Kings were right there with those teams at Christmas before falling off the map and falling apart for literally a quarter of their 2014 season.  While there were a couple of blowouts in there (5-0 in St. Louis on 1/2, 4-1 against the Pens on 1/30, and 5-3 to the Hawks on 2/3), most of these were close losses (3-2 in Nashville on 12/28, 1-0 in Chicago on 12/30, 3-2 in Dallas on 12/31, shootouts against Minnesota on 1/7 and Detroit on 1/18, 3-2 in the afternoon in Boston on 1/20, and 2-1 in Anaheim right before the Stadium Series game, which itself was a close match). A few timely goals or saves in that stretch and the Kings could very easily have been the top seed in the West with home ice advantage guaranteed through the Conference Final instead of being a third seed who only can get home ice in later rounds if the wild cards pull off an upset of two.

It's disappointing to see the Kings go through a slump like that, especially when their division and in-state rivals seemed to up their games to new levels at exactly the same time, allowing them to run away with the division, but it doesn't mean the Kings can't still win this thing. They were the 6th best road team in the NHL this season, but San Jose and Anaheim were the 2nd and 3rd best home teams so this won't be an easy run by any stretch of the imagination.

I suppose this analysis shows the danger of believing passionately that the NHL is a 3-2 league. You're supposed to score as many goals as you can, not try to get to a low number and keep your opponent to a slightly lower number. Fortunately, it's probably truer about the playoffs than the regular season though that you grind out your wins, and that is the way the Kings play. So I'm not too concerned, but it sure would have been nice to get home ice somewhere along the way early against some very good teams.

In the end, at least the Kings don't have much traveling to do this playoff season as they could very well spend the next month playing games in the state of California.

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