Kings (31-22-3, 65 points) vs. Columbus Blue Jackets (28-23-5, 61) at Nationwide Arena, 4 p.m. PT
Five storylines to track:
1. Little wiggle room -- Just when you think the Western Conference standings couldn’t get much tighter, a few of the top-half teams have come back to the pack and some on the bottom have started to roll. The Kings are 7-0-2 in their last nine, yet have moved only four points closer to the top eight and still sit one point out. The good thing is the Kings are only four points out of third place, meaning they can pass a lot of teams in a hurry if they continue to win.
2. Common denominator -- The Kings have allowed the fewest goals in the Western Conference, a feather in the mask for goalies Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. The contributions of shut-down defenseman Willie Mitchell can’t be overlooked either. When he returned from a lower-body injury Jan. 8, the Kings gave up four goals in a victory against the visiting Blue Jackets but haven’t allowed more than three goals in a game since. In the first 13 games of the season -- before Mitchell went down because of a broken wrist -- the Kings gave up more than three goals only twice.
3. Snuffing the advantage -- The penalty-kill unit was also a key element during the Kings’ early success, when they started a franchise-best 12-3-0 and allowed only five power-play goals in their first 64 man-down situations. In the last eight games, Los Angeles has again tightened up its penalty kill, allowing just one power-play goal in 27 extra-man opportunities. Now if the Kings can just improve their own power-play efficiency, they’ll be especially difficult to beat.
4. Elder skatesman -- Ryan Smyth has been making the Blue Jackets see red over the years. He has 18 goals and 41 points in 36 career games against Columbus, including a goal and an assist in the 6-4 victory on Jan. 8 at Staples Center. Smyth, who turns 35 on Monday, remains the unlikely team leader in goals with 19. A major reason why he has been able to maintain his productivity is his good health. He’s on pace to play a full season for the first time since 2003-04.
5. Just as defensive -- Columbus is one of the teams in the West that's making a move to join the top eight. The Blue Jackets have won five of their last six games, allowing one goal or fewer in four of those wins. Steve Mason has been a plug in the Columbus net, owning a 4-1 record with 1.51 goals-against average in his last five starts. The Kings have had Mason’s number, however, averaging 3.28 goals in nine career games against Mason.