Kings (26-18-10, 62 points) vs. Florida Panthers (24-17-11, 59 points) at BankAtlantic Center, 4:30 p.m. PT
Five storylines to track:
1. Don’t be fooled by the weather – After five days in the Sunshine State, the Kings might be feeling a little at home. Considering their record back in Southern California, that's not such a good thing. But the players are certainly aware they still have much to accomplish on this season-long road trip. They’re 1-2 so far with three games remaining against franchises they’ve typically played well against over the years. The Kings beat the Panthers, 2-1, on Dec. 1 at Staples Center, a game they certainly haven’t forgotten for reasons beyond the final score.
2. Bergenheim time – The previous game against the Panthers marked the beginning of a costly downturn for the Kings. Mike Richards had just finished off a stellar month of November, carrying the mercurial Kings with nine goals. That momentum came crashing to a halt when Richards' chin collided with the shoulder of Florida left wing Sean Bergenheim, resulting in a concussion that sidelined Richards the next eight games. With their best offensive player off the ice, the Kings looked lost and lackadaisical while losing their next four games, costing coach Terry Murray his job. As for Richards, he hasn’t looked the same since the injury, scoring just three goals in 21 games. These teams don’t get together too often, so any thought of payback could come sooner rather than later.
3. It’s Clifford time – Kings left wing Kyle Clifford is admittedly a slow starter. He went the first 21 games last season without scoring a goal, then put up 10 the rest of the way, including three in the playoffs. Now a second-year player, he has doubled his season total with two goals in the last five games, both of which held up as game winners. Clifford’s goal Tuesday night in a 3-1 victory at Tampa Bay wasn’t one of the dirty varieties that he mines the crease for, but rather a skillful breakaway in which he made a smooth stick handle from forehand to backhand and slid the puck through the pads of Lightning goalie Dwayne Roloson. Shootout audition?
4. Smart Alec – Kings defenseman Alec Martinez may have won back his job as the team’s sixth blue liner. Martinez, an accounting major at Miami (Ohio) University, is putting up some noticeable numbers, making it tough to take him out of the lineup. In the six games he has started since Jan. 2, the Kings have allowed just seven goals. Kings coach Darryl Sutter made an interesting point heading into the Tampa Bay game, saying rookie Slava Voynov, who was removed from the lineup the last two games to make room for Martinez, still doesn’t know most of the players he’s trying to defend. The press box might just be the best place for the young Russian to get more acquainted with the NHL.
5. Panther particulars – The Panthers haven’t defeated the Kings on their home ice since December 2001 and have lost seven straight overall. Getting an early lead could be the key for both teams. The Panthers are 7-16-5 when they fall behind first, while the Kings are 19-4-5 when breaking the ice. Recently, the Kings have been real stingy on defense early in games, not allowing a first-period goal in the last eight. The Panthers, meanwhile, gave up a goal 13 seconds into their 4-0 loss Tuesday against Washington, which cost them the Southeast Division lead.