Kings not taking Wings lightly in tonight's clash

January, 7, 2010

The Kings host the Red Wings tonight, and you have to go back 19 years to find a time this late in the season when Los Angeles looked down at Detroit in the standings.

That's right, according to our friends at Elias Sports, not since the 1990-91 season have the Kings been ahead of the Wings in the standings this late in the season.

Yes, times they are a changin'.

But take the Wings lightly? Forget about it.

"They've gone through a lot of bad scenarios with all the injuries this year. My goodness, they've had a lot of top guys out," Kings coach Terry Murray told on Wednesday. "We have a great deal of respect for that team. They're a very big concern for us every time we play them just because of their culture and their history. We need our very best game."

As the second half of the season gets under way around the NHL, we find ourselves with an interesting matchup tonight in Los Angeles. A regulation win puts the Kings seven points clear of the Red Wings, while a regulation loss brings ninth-place Detroit to within three of Los Angeles.

"These games are all big, but especially against teams ahead of you," Wings GM Ken Holland told this week. "When you're in ninth, these games are four-pointers."

The Wings on the playoff bubble? Someone pinch me and tell me I'm not dreaming. This is really happening? Of course, as Murray pointed out above, the Red Wings should really change their name to the Wounded Wings.

Henrik Zetterberg, Daniel Cleary, Johan Franzen, Niklas Kronwall, Jonathan Ericsson and Jason Williams have been out for different portions of the season, although Zetterberg and Cleary are set to return tonight. Most other teams would have had the bottom drop out with that kind of talent on the shelf, but the perennially contending Wings have stayed around the No. 8 spot.

"We're hanging in there," said Holland. "I think [Wings coach] Mike Babcock has done a tremendous job in getting our team structured. We've gotten tremendous goaltending from Jimmy Howard. We're playing the style of hockey we need to play to be successful. We're playing playoff-style hockey; we're in a lot of 2-1 and 3-2 games."

Babcock, for my money, is doing the best coaching of his career just keeping this battered ship afloat, but I doubt you'll see him get any votes for the Jack Adams Award when I think he deserves it most. Perennial Cup contenders fighting for their playoff lives doesn't translate well into votes.

Still, what Babcock and his players are going through right now could be a valuable experience for the stretch run.

"We're hoping that the things we've been through in the first half of the year are going to pay dividends in the second half," said Holland.

The hope all along was to hang in there through the injuries, get healthy in the second half and take their best shot in the spring.

"It's a tremendous race," said Holland. "Teams in the West just keep winning. It's hard to catch up. The way it looks right now, it may take 100 points to make the playoffs in the Western Conference."

When Holland said that, I thought he was exaggerating. But he wasn't. Check out the West standings now, and you'll see that 100 points is indeed the ball park figure at this rate. Amazing.

The Kings haven't made the playoffs since the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. They actually flirted with first place in the West last month before hitting a rough patch. They've rebounded with a three-game winning streak, highlighted by big victories over Cup contenders Washington and San Jose.

Murray said goalie Jonathan Quick deserves most of the credit for the win over Washington, but that his team really played a heck of a game in San Jose on Monday night, a 6-2 win against the Sharks.

"That's a very hard building for us to go into," said Murray. "One thing we've gotten over this year is the emotional and mental side of playing in San Jose. I know last year, going in there, we almost had lost the game before we stepped on the ice. We were in awe of them and felt we couldn't compete with them. This year, there's been a reversal on that side of it. We're starting to believe in ourselves."

The confidence in the dressing room is growing. The Kings are believing.

"There's a sense we can play against any team in the league whenever we're playing the right way," said Murray, emphasizing "whenever." "When we as a group of guys are executing properly and making the right decisions through the middle of the ice, then we can have success."

The Wings, meanwhile, have found success with Howard in goal. This is the same little fellow most people thought looked shaky in October. Anyone look at the NHL goalie stats lately? That's Mr. Howard sitting in the top 10 in both goals-against average (2.23) and save percentage (.923). He's come a long way since allowing five goals against St. Louis in Detroit's season opener Oct. 3 in Stockholm.

"When we opened the season in Sweden, people wanted to read into one game," said Holland. "It was a tough night for him. When we came home, Mike really leaned on Chris Osgood. In late October, Chris came down with the flu and Jimmy played some games and his confidence grew. He's in a groove right now. He's making key saves, we're playing tight, and he's been a real important guy for us.

"He played four years in the AHL and he's put in his dues. He had a great camp and he's certainly been a real big story for us in the first half of the season."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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