COMMENTARY | After the final horn sounded for Thursday night's game against the Buffalo Sabers, Jonathan Quick had made 19 saves to earn his first shutout of the season and centers Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards had both tallied power play goals to lead the Los Angeles Kings to a 2-0 victory over the NHL-worst Sabers. Fairly normal numbers for a Kings team that has won plenty of games over the last few years with timely goals, a strong penalty kill, and all-world goaltending. However, what used to come so easily to the Kings has now been a sore spot for them, and despite a 10-6-0 record, the Kings are still a team who are one bad streak away from a losing record.
After disappointing losses to the Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes earlier in the week, it became clear that the Western Conference is a force to be reckoned with. With the performance of the upstart Colorado Avalanche, the Dustin Penner-lead Anaheim Ducks (Kings fans are groaning) and the bound-to-lose-in-the-first-round-of-the-playoffs San Jose Sharks, the competition in the West is as strong as its ever been. Even though Thursday evening's victory over the Buffalo Sabers was a big, necessary win, because of their recent struggles the Kings would be on the outside looking in if the regular season were to end today.
If the Kings are to enter the playoff bubble of the uber-talented Western Conference, then it is very clear that Jonathan Quick is going to have to pick up his game by a large margin. With a .901 save percentage and a 2.48 goals against average, which are only 49th and 34th in the league amongst goalies with at least one start, he is clearly not playing like the Conn Smythe winner of yesteryear, especially with the weak goals surrendered in the loss to Nashville.
With much of the talk surrounding Quick centering on the likelihood of him starting in net for the American squad at the Olympics, with his weak regular season numbers (albeit a small sample size), he doesn't deserve to make the team, let alone start. That honor should go to Ben Bishop, who is playing out of his mind right now for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Jonathan Quick has proven himself before on the most important of stages, but it is of utmost importance for the Kings that Quick play like they know he can... especially considering his Rick DiPietro-esque 10-year contract and the fact that recently traded King, Jonathan Bernier, is making the Kings reconsider trading him with his strong start for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Also of concern for the Kings is that of their penalty kill unit. With a team built on defense and goaltending, it's no surprise that the Kings were at their best when they were killing penalties at an extremely high rate. Whereas the Kings killed 87% of their penalties in 2011-2012 and and 83.2% of their penalties on 2012-2013, which were good for 4th and 10th in the league in those seasons, they are now shutting down just 80% of opposing teams' power plays, only good for 20th in the NHL. Before the victory over the Sabers, the Kings were 22nd in that department.
It's very, very possible that these issues are simply due to a small sample size in the early goings of the season. However, maybe the Kings aren't seeing enough progress out of young defenseman Jake Muzzin. Maybe defenseman Willie Mitchell's surgically repaired knee has a screw loose. Maybe this team is missing the presence of former defensive stud Rob Scuderi, now with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Whatever it is, the penalty kill of this unit has to return to form if the Kings plan on winning the close games that define Western Conference hockey.
What won't make any of the defensive woes easier for the Kings are the injuries they are sustaining. With top-scoring forward Jeff Carter on the injured reserve with a foot injury, center Jarret Stoll on the mend with a groin injury, and now defenseman Matt Greene missing Thursday's game after being described "banged up" by coach Darryl Sutter, the Kings may have a very difficult time against the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday. If there's something positive to take out of these injuries, it's that highly touted prospects Linden Vey and Tyler Toffoli will be getting some playing time. They may not provide the firepower that 19-year-old Tomas Hertl has provided for the San Jose Sharks, but Vey had a good showing in his NHL premiere against the Sabers and Toffoli has two assists in two games this season.
The Kings next test will come in the shape of the 11-5-2 Vancouver Canucks Saturday evening. Whether or not the Kings are prepared to pass that test will rest largely on the well-padded shoulders of Jonathan Quick and the penalty kill unit.
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