The Los Angeles Kings are one of the best teams in hockey, and they have been for a while.
But the 2012 Stanley Cup champions have been struggling lately, losing five of six entering Thursday night’s matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins, part of a 5-11-2 stretch dating back to Dec. 23. Despite the extended slump, they’re still in playoff position in the tough Western Conference because of their remarkable defensive ability.
No team in the NHL can match the Kings’ 2.04 goals-against average this season, with the Bruins closest at 2.15. With that stinginess carrying them, the Kings have been able to survive scoring just 2.31 goals per contest, the fifth-lowest average in the league.
That means games involving Los Angeles this season have resulted in an average of 4.35 total red lights, well below the typical NHL matchup, which has yielded 5.52 in 2013-14. Conversely, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ potent offense (3.15 goals per game) has helped their games produce 5.64 goals on average.
Because of the soccer-like scores their games produce, the Kings seem to be one of the most boring teams in the league from an outsider’s perspective. It doesn’t help that their coach Darryl Sutter could cure insomnia with his speech patterns and that their uniforms are undoubtedly among the dullest in professional sports. (In fitting Kings fashion, they “branched out” for their recent Stadium Series game by going all gray.)
But maybe I’m getting them wrong. After all, even though the Kings are having extreme difficulty putting the puck in the net, they’re in the top 10 in shots on goal per game at 31.2. That healthy rate hasn’t helped them lately – they have scored two total goals in their past four games and have reached three only once in their previous 10 – but statistical trends tells us some positive regression is due.
In fact, Los Angeles’ shooting percentage of 5.0 is dead last in the NHL, behind even the punchless Buffalo Sabres (5.6). This makes little sense, since established offensive talents like Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Dustin Brown still wear crowns on their chests.
If this sounds familiar, the Kings were having a similarly rough time scoring two years ago, barely sneaking into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the West after a late-season push. They proceeded to pour on the goals from there, an eruption that combined with Jonathan Quick‘s stellar goaltending to deliver the franchise’s first championship.
The possession numbers indicate this is as strong of a Kings team as we’ve seen. They lead the league in both forms of shot-attempt differential (Fenwick and Corsi) in close situations and they continue to get spectacular goaltending from Quick and rookie Martin Jones, who have helped the team post the third-best save percentage in the NHL at 94.0.
Boring or not, the Kings are formidable. They will be a true test for the Penguins’ team cohesiveness, which has floundered a bit since the new year arrived.
Tonight’s Game: Penguins (37-14-2, 76 points – 1st Metropolitan) vs. Kings (30-19-6, 66 points – 3rd Pacific) at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The teams will face off at 10:30 p.m. Eastern, with Root Sports Pittsburgh handling the TV broadcast. 105.9 The X has the radio feed, with Mike Lange and Phil Bourque on the call.
Backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff will start against the team that drafted him in 2006, while Quick gets the call for the Kings as expected.
More from Matt Gajtka: Film room reveals how not to manage the puck
Topics: Pittsburgh Penguins