Kings (18-14-6, 42 points) vs. Vancouver Canucks (24-12-2, 50 points) at Staples Center, 7 p.m.
Five storylines to track:
1. Back in contention – Despite all the hand-wringing over the offensive troubles, the injuries to key players and the mid-season coaching change, the Kings have scratched and clawed back into the top eight in the Western Conference standings. Now it’s up to the players to prove they can hang with one of the best in the West. They played a great game in a 2-0 victory Wednesday in Chicago, but couldn’t match that effort the next night in a 1-0 overtime loss in Winnipeg. Like the West-leading Blackhawks, Vancouver has had the Kings’ number of late. A victory would be a great way to kick off a season-long six-game home stand.
2. Home blues – There’s always some concern that players will lose their edge while home for long stretches, get distracted by family matters or just become too comfortable on the couch. Whatever the case, the Kings really aren’t getting it done at Staples Center this season. Not counting the two “home” games that were played overseas to start the year, the Kings are 9-8-1 on their home ice with 36 goals, an average of two a game. That’s no way to get the crowd excited. During last season’s eight-game home stand from Dec. 30 to Jan. 15, the Kings went 2-6-0. Despite that rough stretch, they had one of the best home marks in the conference at 25-13-3.
3. First things first – Since it’s too easy to pick on the power play every preview, we’ll skip that glaringly weak spot and focus on another. Very, very, slow starts. When the ice is smooth, and the crowd is festive and the energy level should be at its highest, the Kings can’t seem to score first-period goals at near the same rate as the rest of the league. They’re last in first-period goals with 15, seven less than the next lowest-scoring team. After scoring in the first period in four of their first five games, they haven’t scored in the opening 20 minutes in 24 of the last 33. Vancouver, by the way, is second in the league in first-period goals with 41.
4. Fourth-line leader – Kings fourth-line center Colin Fraser made his organizational debut against the Canucks on Nov. 10 at Staples Center, and before he could blink the Canucks had taken a 3-0 lead. He didn’t make much of an impact in that 3-2 loss but did score two nights later in a 5-2 victory against Minnesota. Fraser has been one of the few consistencies since that night, leading a variety of wingmates into the corners and creases to perform the dirty work. Every now and then, they get rewarded with a goal, as he, Trent Hunter and Kyle Clifford did in Chicago. The trio might not be pretty, but they’ve apparently caught the eye of coach Darryl Sutter.
5. Solid as a rock – Vancouver has been as consistent as they come. The Canucks have yet to lose three in a row this season. They have the best power-play unit in the league and the seventh-best penalty kill. They’re third in the league in scoring, yet have the seventh-best goals-against average. There are few holes in the Canucks. The best bet for the Kings is to hope they can find a few holes around goalie Roberto Luongo, who is 13-8-2 lifetime against the Kings with two shutouts and a 2.26 GAA.