The Kings’ winning ways against the best NHL playoff-style games

LOS ANGELES — Todd McLellan chuckled as he elaborated on how the Kings are “in now” and viewed this meat grinder of a schedule they’re on as a prelude to their playoff push. The veteran coach couldn’t undo it when he was asked directly about the official start.

“I’m going to contradict myself now if I say no,” McLellan said, smiling. “I sort of walked right in, didn’t I?”

They just went past the Game 44 marker on that playoff road. But in the minds of kings things are actually moving forward. Here’s what it looked like on Monday night as they systematically defeated Edmonton and defeated the visiting Oilers 6-3 in their own power-play based game.

It’s nine wins in 12 games since their third-period collapse in Buffalo. Interestingly, McLellan felt he was playing well before things went completely haywire as the Sabers scored all six goals in a goalless contest. Since then, kings have continued to do the things they were good at and shored up the areas where they struggled and caused worthy concern.

Improved power play, which has jumped from 27th to 10th this season, torched a poor Oilers penalty kill that saw Kevin Fiala carry the flamethrower all night. Fiala dominated the game, giving the Kings a 2-0 lead with two goals in the first and then setting up Adrian Kempe for two of his own. All four on the power play. And there were other plays of even strength that he directed that were unfinished but still impressive. All of the coming two days of his hat trick made for a 5-1 win over first place seed Vegas on the road.

“When he’s active, he can dominate games,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty. “He is very good. Good view, good shot. One of the better one on one guys I’ve ever played with in my career. I thought he dominated. He was incredible. I thought he could have had seven or eight points.”

Fiala, who the Kings traded for and then gave him $55 million over seven years, has 46 points while playing in all 44 games. Five goals in the last two and nine points in total in the last four. So far, the newly minted All-Star winger is delivering a return on investment.

“I’m just trying to play hockey, you know,” he said. “Before that I had a lot of chances. It’s not that I didn’t play well or anything. And right now, especially in the last two games, they’ve gone in. It’s nice to see that.”

But the difference in a game full of whistles is a Kings penalty kill that gets the job done. No major challenge came Monday against a team converting power plays with an NHL lead percentage of 32.2 percent. Seventy of the 139 points collected by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl come from this situation. Coaches across the league tell their teams to stay out of the box so the two don’t have to work with an extra man on the ice. The two can hurt teams at any time when personalities are balanced.

The Kings couldn’t stay out of the box on Monday as referees Marc Joannette and Furman South firmly decided the game. They rose to the challenge. McDavid, Draisaitl and Co. were allowed to do six power plays. All six ended in failure. Kailer Yamamoto scored after a second had elapsed in the first three seconds. But neither McDavid nor Draisaitl were involved. (McDavid defeated them with an outstanding solo steal and scored in the third goal for his first point in two losses against the Kings this season).

“The guys did a great job,” said Phoenix Copley, who made 28 stops for his 11th win in 13 starts. “You can’t do much better than that. Block shots. Deletes. That’s just great.”

The Kings still rank 25th in the penalty shootout with a 73.4 percent success rate. Penalties are harder to kill these days as 22 of the 32 teams have more than 20 percent converting power plays into goals. But they eliminated all short-handed situations in victories over Vegas and Edmonton. Twelve out of 13 if you include the previous two games against Dallas and Boston. And while they’ve conceded goals in all eight other games since the Buffalo kill fell apart, the Kings got kills at critical moments and they were a reason six of those games turned into wins.

McLellan cites two things: pressure and predictability.

“And we were a bit lacking in both at the beginning of the year,” he said. “When we put pressure on it was not foreseeable. We haven’t steered things in our favour. We corrected that a bit. That would be the difference, I think.”

Most notably, the kings have upped their game as the stakes start to rise. In that 9-2-1 run, they shared two games with juggernaut Boston, beat Vegas twice, defeated Colorado and Dallas, and now Edmonton. Three division leaders, the defending Stanley Cup champions and a team with two superstars that knocked them out of the playoffs and reached the Western Conference Finals last season.

“We knew how important this track was,” said Doughty. “We definitely saw weeks ago that we had that stretch against Boston, Dallas, Edmonton. Some other good teams. Vegas. We knew how important it was. We gave up a few games to some teams that were lower in the conferences, but we got the better of those big teams.

“I wouldn’t say it feels like playoff hockey, but the urgency is there, and the team game is there, and the players are stepping on the plate. I think everyone is playing well at this track. That’s the main thing. Every single player in the dressing room plays really good hockey. That’s why we win these games.”

Next week, the Kings have their first break in a busy schedule that has seen them consistently play more games than any other team. After hosting San Jose on Wednesday and New Jersey on Saturday, they will go four days without another game until Dallas makes a return visit.

“The intensity of the games seems to be heightened at the moment,” McLellan said in the morning, continuing on the subject of playoff stretch. “I don’t know if there will be a push into the playoffs. I think there is a push for some deadlines that we see coming. Obviously we have a four day break ahead of us. We really want to play well there so that we can breathe a little and rest. And then comes the longer (All-Star) break.

“So we have two segments of games here where we have to record our game and try to play the best we can play. And then I always use the word breathe. Just park for a while. Turn it off, breathe a little, get well, and then try again.”

Doughty loves it when games matter. Wrist surgery kept him out of the playoff series against the Oilers, but he loved cheering for his teammates. He was sick of losing, of rebuilding that was painful but necessary. Now he’s enjoying the way out of that time.

“We’re feeling really good right now,” he said. “We can see that at the moment we can play with the best teams in the league if we play our best hockey. If we continue like this, things are looking really good for us.”

“Playoff push or no playoff push, we want to get better every day no matter where we are,” Fiala said. “And at the moment we are very good and playing very well. So being able to climb that ladder in the overall standings is also a kind of bonus. Certainly we are in a playoff push.”

(Photo: Jason Parkhurst / USA Today) The Kings’ winning ways against the best NHL playoff-style games

Russell Falcon

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