The Kings will continue their grind in the Sunshine State with back-to-back games against the Florida Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning as they progress through the back half of a half-dozen-game road swing.
Those matchups will wrap up the season series with both squads. The Kings defeated both teams in their previous meetings. They edged out Florida 5-4 on Nov. 5 and played one of their most comprehensive games of the campaign in a 4-2 win over Tampa on Oct. 25.
A third-period comeback in Philadelphia on Tuesday put the Kings on the correct side of the ledger during the trip. Kevin Fiala’s overtime winner came on the heels of Samuel Fagemo’s third-period equalizer and two earlier tallies from team captain Anze Kopitar, who leads the Kings this season in points against the Florida teams with three.
“We’ve been in this situation before where we know what we’ve got to do and it’s just a matter of executing,” Kopitar said.
Kopitar’s first marker came with the extra man and the Kings have scored 12 power-play goals in 12 games. Overall, if they can maintain their current conversion rate through the rest of the season, it will represent the greatest improvement from one year to the next in franchise history. The 1986-87 Kings leapt 7.8% from the campaign prior, while the 2022-23 Kings have catapulted their figure by 8.2%.
That success has continued even without some mainstays on the man advantage. Gabe Vilardi has yet to rejoin the team on this trip while Arthur Kaliyev and Trevor Moore remain on injured reserve.
The Kings have also cut down the porous defensive performances. Of the 13 games in which they’ve given up five goals or more, just three have come since Dec. 15. None of the six instances in which they’ve allowed more than five goals came during that span, as long scoring plays against and defensive confusion have diminished noticeably.
“As the year has gone on, we’ve found a little bit more consistency. We’ve played more within our structure,” defenseman Mikey Anderson said. “Obviously, at times, it can sway away, but, as a group now, I think we’re able to recognize when something like that is happening and we’re able to turn the tide.”
As the trip wore on – after playing three games in four nights, the Kings will finish with three in seven – the Kings varied the past two days between on-ice work on breakouts and a bit of leisure time on the shores of Fort Lauderdale.
“It’s funny, we obviously live in L.A. and a bunch of us live near the beaches, but when you’re on the road and get the chance to do it as a team, it’s a different vibe, and it was fun,” defenseman Sean Walker said.
Beyond soccer on the Florida sand, the Kings will first face a franchise seeking to recapture its identity and then they’ll see an organization with perhaps the most proven formula in the NHL.
Last season, the Panthers won the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team by record. But they fizzled out in the playoffs, being swept by their in-state rivals, and opted to make their second coaching change in nine months when they hired Paul Maurice. He was hardly the only new face in Florida as they dealt leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau and defenseman MacKenzie Weegar as part of a package to Calgary in exchange for winger Matthew Tkachuk.
Tkachuk has long been a thorn in the Kings’ side and little has changed with the move to Florida. He drew their ire in the earlier meeting when he stuck the blade of his stick inside goalie Jonathan Quick’s mask toward the end of the match. He has been as advertised for Florida, sitting comfortably ahead of center Aleksander Barkov for the team scoring lead. On the whole, however, the Panthers have struggled to rekindle the magic of last season and were on the outside of the playoff picture looking in entering Thursday’s action.
Tampa Bay has found a way to stay in the mix perpetually, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Final in three consecutive years and now remaining on pace for their ninth playoff appearances in the past decade. The Lightning has split four championship series during that span while solidifying the legacies of at least four future Hall of Famers: Victor Hedman, Nikita Kucherov, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Steven Stamkos. Not to be outdone in the agitation department, Tampa Bay sees Florida’s Tkachuk, only to raise it a former MVP and Kings arch nemesis, with winger Corey Perry.
In addition to that group and clutch center Brayden Point, last year’s trade-deadline acquisition has become this year’s breakout performer for the Bolts. Winger Brandon Hagel came at a high cost – two first-round picks and two prospects – but he has compiled 40 points in 46 games while his former teammates in Chicago have tirelessly pursued the best odds at landing the No. 1 pick in the upcoming draft.
Kings at Florida
When: 4 p.m. Friday
Where: FLA Live Arena, Sunrise, Fla.
TV/Radio: Bally Sports West/iHeart Radio
Kings at Tampa Bay
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Amalie Arena, Tampa
TV/Radio: Bally Sports West/iHeart Radio