As the Kings prepare for tonight's game in Toronto against the Maple Leafs, a couple of thoughts to ponder:
1. Anze Kopitar had what a team insider called "his best game in three months" against the Red Wings in Detroit last Saturday. Playing on a line with two muckers, Brad Richardson and Wayne Simmonds, Kopitar scored his team's first goal, his 20th of the season, and assisted on the other two. The line combined for seven points and spearheaded a 3-2 comeback win from a 2-0 deficit over the Red Wings.
Remember, this win was the first of the Kings' current five-game trip and it came on the heels of last Thursday night's homestand finale at Staples against the Buffalo Sabres. If the Kings end up making the playoffs this season, they may well look back on that game as a critical catalyst in that effort. You'll recall that there were multiple adverse moments in that game that the Kings managed to overcome, not only allowing them to salvage the homestand record (it ended up a not terrific but at least palatable 3-4) but more importantly giving a psychologically fragile team a huge boost as it headed out on the road with that game at Detroit.
Just before leaving for that trip, coach Terry Murray talked about how someone needed to step up and assert himself, about the importance of the team's best player doing what he is supposed to do. No names were mentioned, but it was clear that Murray was talking about Kopitar, who has been struggling offensively. Remember that at one point earlier this season, Kopitar was the leading scorer in the NHL, after a scorching start that saw him score 10 goals in his first 12 games. Since then it's been a slog for Hopi: It took 39 games for him to reach the 20-goal plateau.
The hope, obviously, is that Kopitar's restored confidence and scoring touch are dovetailing with the overall good feeling -- and performance -- of the team, which is now in sixth place in the ultratight Western Conference playoff race, with 61 points, just five points behind third-place Colorado and six points in front of 11th-place Dallas.
As the players say, ad nauseam, this time of year: Every game is a playoff game.
2. Which is all the more reason why the Kings have to be very wary of a letdown tonight against the Leafs. Toronto is struggling, mired in 14th place in the Eastern Conference standings, 10 points out of the playoff race. The Leafs are 2-7-1 in their last 10 games and have a dreadful record at the Air Canada Centre, with just 23 points in the 24 games they've played there so far this season.
But here's the rub: The Kings haven't won in Toronto since 2005. Of course, a big reason for that is because L.A. simply doesn't play in Toronto that often -- just once in the last six seasons. But a bigger reason is that for a lot of players, the proverbial rite of NHL passage isn't really achieved until they play their first game in Toronto. Many of them grew up watching the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada and they are quite simply in awe of the team, the arena, the ambience, aura, everything about the experience.
So a lot of guys just gag. They're so mesmerized by where they are that they forget they're there to play and win a hockey game.
So keep an eye on Wayne Simmonds' first few shifts tonight. He grew up in Toronto. Ditto for defenseman Drew Doughty, who's from nearby London, Ontario. Both will be making their debuts in Toronto.
Some things to keep in mind about the Ducks, who are also on the road and play in Atlanta tonight against the Thrashers:
On Jan. 6, the team was 12 points out of eighth place in the Western Conference. Since then, the team has gone 7-2-0 and is now in 10th place, within three points of the eighth and final playoff spot. The Ducks have won three of their last four games and are 8-2-0 in their last 10 games.
Like the Kings against Detroit, the Ducks also had to come back to win their game last Saturday against St. Louis, the 11th time they've accomplished that this season. Anaheim trailed 3-0 until just past the five-minute mark of the third period, when Scott Niedermayer got things going in what turned out to be a 4-3 shootout win for Anaheim, equaling the largest comeback win in team history. It also marked the first time in team history that the Ducks have rallied from a three-goal deficit in the third period and only the second time in history that the team has won a game after trailing by three goals on the road.
The game tonight is the third of the Ducks' six-game trip and they have their hands full with snipers in their immediate future. Tonight, of course, they'll have to deal with llya Kovalchuk, who's fourth overall in the NHL goal-scoring race, with 30 goals, and who has nine points (five goals, four assists) in the last seven games. You may also have heard that Kovalchuk is at the center of a ton of trade rumors these days: While he loves Atlanta and would like to stay with the Thrashers, he becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and is going to demand a salary in the $10 million-per-year range. Since there's no indication that he's going to give the Thrashers a "hometown discount," the speculation is that he'll be dealt before the trade deadline of March 3, either as a rental for a team that sees him as the final piece that it needs to make a run at the Stanley Cup, or -- and this is the less likely scenario -- as the centerpiece of a blockbuster deal that would see him signing a long-term contract with a team in exchange for a bucket-load of veteran players and draft choices.
And, oh by the way, tomorrow the Ducks are in Washington to play the Capitals. You may have heard of their best player. Some guy named Alex Ovechkin, who's won the NHL scoring title the last two years and who currently has 33 goals, just two behind leader Patrick Marleau of San Jose.
Meanwhile, possible good news for the Ducks on the injury front: After missing four games with a sprained knee, forward Saku Koivu is questionable for tonight's game and the team is hopeful that Teemu Selanne will have recovered sufficiently from his broken jaw to be back in the lineup for the team's game in Tampa against the Lightning on Friday.
Tom Murray covers the Kings and Ducks for ESPNLosAngeles.com.