Kings: Trying to stay a step ahead of the Coyotes

Kings (27-19-11, 65 points) vs. Phoenix Coyotes (27-21-9, 63 points) at Staples Center, 7:30 p.m.

Five storylines to track:

1. Must-win time: The way the Western Conference has become so bunched in the middle, every minute on the ice should feel like the a playoff game for the Kings. Of the 25 regular-season games that remain, all but one is against teams from the West. The only opponent that’s not is the Boston Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions who come to town March 24. Phoenix is the latest team to push itself into the top eight and pull within two points of the seventh-place Kings. Heading into Thursday’s games, sixth through 13th place in the West are separated by just eight points.

2. Rally time: The Coyotes are prime examples of how quickly things can turn around in the West. They were 12th just two weeks ago, then won five straight to move into eighth. The Chicago Blackhawks, meanwhile, had the best record in the NHL the morning of Jan. 21, lost nine straight and now wake up sixth in the West, tied in points with the Kings. L.A. has had its share of losing streaks this season, twice dropping five straight games. What they haven’t had is a sustained winning streak, failing to win more than four in a row this season. If there was ever a good time to get on a roll, now would be it, especially with one Western Conference team after another on the schedule.

3. Judgment hour: This is a big night for rookies Jordan Nolan and Dwight King, as well as a few other forwards who are trying to get back in the lineup. Nolan and King were called up from the AHL on Friday and have been impressive in their first two games with the Kings, each scoring their first NHL goals Sunday in a 4-2 victory in Dallas. How each performs individually against Phoenix could go a long way toward determining who stays on the roster when Jarret Stoll is eligible to come off injured reserve Friday. Dustin Penner, the team’s fourth-highest paid player, has been a healthy scratch the last two games because of inconsistent play and effort. He could be the odd man out should the rookies continue to shine.

4. Trade talk: Of the players on the Kings' roster, the most frequent names to get thrown out in trade rumors are back-up goalie Jonathan Bernier and defenseman Jack Johnson. Bernier has been mentioned in trade talks the last couple years, but Johnson’s name is a bit more perplexing. He signed a long-term deal last season, one he negotiated himself, and is playing some of his best hockey of the season. After producing just two goals and seven assists while racking up a minus-11 rating in November and December, Johnson has three goals and seven assists in January and February, with a minus-1 rating in those months.

5. Wiley Coyotes: Phoenix forward Radim Vrbata has scored 18 of his team-high 26 goals on the road, which leads the NHL. He had recorded at least one point in seven straight games before he was shut out in a 2-1 shootout loss Monday in Vancouver. Ray Whitney, who has 16 goals and a team-high 35 assists, was also blanked against the Canucks, ending an eight-game scoring streak. Keep those two off the board for another game and the Kings have a good chance of winning their second in a row.