Can Kings flip the switch again?

LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Kings are hard to figure out.

Lack of home ice, low playoff seeding, regular-season hiccups, coaching change -- none of these obstacles have slowed the juggernaut the Kings have become. They have thoroughly dashed conventional thinking on building and maintaining a winner.

In 2012, they entered the playoffs as the eighth seed and decimated the competition en route to the franchise's first championship. In spite of starting on the road, the Kings took a 3-0 stranglehold lead in all four postseason series.

While nursing the perennial Cup hangover the following season, the Kings battled to the Western Conference finals.

Then, last spring, the Kings spotted the San Jose Sharks a 3-0 series lead before rolling past them in the first round, they won Game 7s on the road against the Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks, and dispatched the New York Rangers in five games to win it all in the Stanley Cup finals.

But now, more than midway through this season, the Kings are confronting questions about their own identity and their future.

Can they flip that switch everyone seems to believe they possess, or are time and the rest of the league catching up to them?

That question was brought into sharper focus this week when veteran center Mike Richards was put on waivers and sent to the Kings' American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester, New Hampshire.

It was a move that rocked the tightly knit Kings.

"Mike going down, I hope he's back soon," 2013-14 playoff MVP Justin Williams told ESPN.com on Thursday. "He's part of the family here. There's certainly just a big, empty spot without him [that] I feel.

"But we'll march on and he'll march on, and time will take care of everything ... but I hope he's back with this team and helping us out like I know he can."

You don't become this kind of team by being a slave to stats and taking a moneyball approach to the game.

You become this kind of team by relying on things like feel, gut and personality.

You become this kind of team by deciding to keep a guy such as Richards when the prevailing outside thinking was that the Kings should have bought him out when they still had a chance.

You become this kind of team by displaying something that can't be measured by any matrix or special formula: loyalty. GM Dean Lombardi opted not to take the easy way out last summer because winning the Stanley Cup isn't easy.

He believed Richards is the kind of player whose value might not be truly known until he's no longer in the room, and Lombardi wasn't willing to take the risk of finding out just how big a hole Richards' absence would represent for his team come April, May and maybe June.

That doesn't make things any easier for the Los Angeles Kings, though.

It's easy to criticize or second-guess in hindsight.

Would the team have been better off without Richards and with Willie Mitchell, who helped enormously on the penalty kill and signed as a free agent with the Florida Panthers?

And they certainly miss Slava Voynov, who is suspended while he faces felony domestic assault charges.

Richards hasn't worked out in spite of pledging to come to camp in better shape this season and do more to justify his whopper salary (he has five years left at an annual cap hit of $5.75 million after this season).

Would it surprise anyone if Richards came back this season and did what he's done throughout his career? Like his play in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs, when he was a force against the Vancouver Canucks? Or his contributions in last season's epic Western Conference finals against the Blackhawks?

"It's tough. You never want to ... lose a guy like Mike. He's very important to our locker room," Kings forward Kyle Clifford said. "But at the same time, it's a business of winning, so those things happen. Sometimes, it makes a little tougher just how close this group is."

These next two weeks will be key for the Kings.

They enjoyed an emotional, come-from-behind win over Chicago in their first game back from the All-Star break, but now they're headed on the road, where they've been terrible (only the Buffalo Sabres and Edmonton Oilers have less than the Kings' five road wins).

Worse, they have a road-heavy schedule leading up to the playoffs.

There are other troubling issues that must be addressed after they departed Los Angeles on Friday for a five-game, 11-day road trip.

Their one-goal win on Wednesday was just their sixth of the kind this season, tied for worst in the NHL; their winning percentage in one-goal games is dead last and they are 25th in penalty-killing efficiency.

A veteran Western Conference scout wasn't surprised by the Richards move. "The team needed a jolt and they didn't have many options," he said.

The demotion of Richards wasn't a symbolic move. It was a tactical move designed to help improve the roster; but it was a move that didn't lack for symbolism, which makes this road trip so interesting.

"These are all big games for us now," Kings forward Trevor Lewis said. "We're fighting for our playoff lives here. So we're playing playoff hockey right now. We have to, to even have a chance to get in. I think these next five games on the road will be a good test for us, and hopefully, we can keep some momentum from last night.

"It's definitely different than years past. It's a new year, it's a new team. We're not sneaking up on anyone anymore. Everyone's kind of gunning for us. We've got to know that and be ready for that."

And here's the rub: Is there anyone, from the security guard in Manchester to the folks scalping tickets outside Staples Center, who believes -- in spite of the team's current residence outside the playoff bubble and the ups and downs of this season -- the Kings will miss the playoffs?

It's what the Kings do.

Isn't it?

"It's certainly an important stretch for us. We know that," Williams said. "It was important for us to get a big win [Wednesday] to head out on the road feeling good. We need to roll this. We've said in the dressing room before the game last night: 'Enough talk. It's time to do it.'

"We're a team that wants to stay together and see how good we can be. You can only stay together if you win. Teams don't stay together if they lose. That's something that we want to do. If we don't do it, then you look upon yourselves as the reason why we didn't."