Less than a month ago, the Kings had little in the way of quality wins or success against playoff teams.
But between their gutsy Dec. 15 comeback victory over the Presidents’ Trophy favorite Boston Bruins and their next matchup with Boston on Thursday, the Kings have turned at least one narrative on its head.
They prevailed against last year’s Pacific Division champion, the Calgary Flames, during their subsequent homestand. They closed the gap on first-place Vegas five days later. Two days after that, they snapped a nine-game head-to-head losing streak and four-year road drought in Colorado with a win over the defending champion Avalanche. On Tuesday, they took down the Central Division-leading Dallas Stars in yet another intense, contested match.
In the process, they’ve gone from meandering to soaring, accumulating 50 points at the halfway mark of the season. If they can maintain their 100-point pace, it would be just the sixth campaign of 100 points or more in franchise history and the first since 2015-16. Yet the Kings aren’t looking too far down the line, with a torrid stretch of their schedule still in progress.
“Our goal is to become a 52-point team,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “The team coming in here on Thursday, what are they shooting for? Their (64th) point. That’s the type of challenge that we have. And then the next game after that, we’ve got to go into Las Vegas and play, and then after that we have Edmonton coming in.”
“So, this string of games right now, every night is a big battle. If we start thinking about big numbers and chunks, it’s not going to do us any good.”
It would be impossible to ignore that the Kings’ coalescence has coincided with the ascent of 30-year-old Pheonix Copley, a goalie previously buried on the Washington Capitals’ organizational depth chart. He has “settled everything down” and “stabilized the group,” according to McLellan.
Expect Copley in net Thursday against Boston and perhaps beyond. Veteran Jonathan Quick has been winless in five starts since Dec. 3 and has looked sharp in defeat only once. Boston will likely start Linus Ullmark, who has pieced together a jaw-dropping 21-1-1 record this season.
“Playing against the best, that’s how you kind of gauge where you’re at and what you can improve on,” Copley said. “That’s what you want to do, so I’m happy for the challenge whenever I get to play those games.”
Copley has garnered some superlatives of his own, winning seven consecutive decisions with a .919 save percentage and 2.19 goals-against average across those triumphs. Such figures have been a sight for sore eyes after the Kings had been scraping the league’s floor in terms of goaltending stats. Copley’s seven victories since Dec. 15 lead the NHL, and his only loss in 10 appearances this season came when a scoreless tie careened off the rails in the third period in Buffalo.
He said he had sought an equilibrium between visualizing his long-term success and staying focused on the next puck being fired his way.
“You have to have a belief and a vision of where you want to go in order to get there. At the same time, you can’t get too far ahead of yourself, so you have to balance the two,” Copley said.
Another newcomer who has factored significantly into the Kings’ success, recent and overall, has been winger Kevin Fiala. He set up the goals that bookended the Kings’ victory over Dallas and paces the team with 39 points and 29 assists by commensurately comfortable margins (by nine points and nine assists).
However, Fiala also leads the Kings in a less commendable category: minor penalties. Fiala has taken 16 minors this season, and they’ve often been unnecessary, costly, ill-timed or all three of those undesirable adjectives.
Against Dallas, Fiala earned the primary assist on Adrian Kempe’s game-winning power-play goal, but on his next shift he took a gratuitous slashing penalty that forced the Kings to kill a penalty at a most inopportune moment. McLellan alluded to the infraction without being prompted after the game.
There seems to be a pattern for Fiala and a lack of composure. One can forgive him for tangling up with agitator Nazem Kadri against Calgary, causing a four-on-four situation. But less understandable was Fiala hooking Swiss countryman Timo Meier without apparent cause late in a tie game against San Jose that put heavy pressure on the Kings’ penalty kill as Fiala’s penalty did Tuesday against Dallas.
Of his 16 minor penalties, five have led directly to power-play goals: three tripping violations, one roughing call and an infraction for illegal equipment. A sixth goal was scored immediately after a power play expired, in the Kings’ opener against Vegas, which was the result of Fiala being booked for an illegal check to the head.
“It is a bit (frustrating), yeah, because we’ve talked about it. But I don’t manage Kevin, Kevin manages Kevin,” said McLellan after Fiala’s penalty Tuesday. “When it’s crunch time and we’re up by one or down by one, I want him to be on the ice all the time. But he and other players will dictate whether they are or aren’t. There’s been a lot of offensive-zone penalties like that this year, and it has to stop.”
Discipline will be vital again Thursday when the Kings host Boston, which ranks sixth in power-play conversion rate and paces the NHL in penalty-kill percentage. The Bruins have allowed the fewest goals at even strength and overall this season, while their offense sits second in goals per game, spearheaded by prolific winger David Pastrnak.
Boston at Kings
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday
Where: Crypto.com Arena
TV/Radio: Bally Sports West/iHeart Radio