The Los Angeles Kings are one of the hottest teams in hockey and they extended their point streak to 11 games with their 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets Saturday.
The Kings are 8-0-2 in that 11 game run and a big reason for their success is players elevating their play at this time of the year.
One of the players to elevate their game the most is star defensemen Drew Doughty.
"Yeah, I mean, early in the season it's easy to play," said Doughty of elevating his play. "You had the summer off, you're coming back and there's a stretch of games where you're doing everything you can to be in the games. But you go on the road against East Coast, you play teams you're not used to playing as much, but now we enter the last part of the season and these games are so important. It's so important to play well going into (the) playoffs, these games matter a lot to us as a team. And, obviously, that's kind of what I've been able to do is step up my game in bigger situations."
Doughty's overall game has been impressive, but he's also brought goals back into the mix. His goal Saturday gives him four in his last five as he rolls back the years offensively.
"I mean, I definitely looked at my goal total and was like, 'oh, I'm not going to be worst than my first year in the league'," said Doughty of his increased goal scoring recently. "I haven't been happy about it all year, it's been something that's been frustrating me and I mean, the pucks just going in. We know how goals are, you get hot at times and, obviously, I'm a little bit hot right now, scoring goals. So, it feels good to finally get back on the scoresheet, but I don't want to waste them all before playoff time."
The Kings previous two games against the Jets were weird ones. Most recently you had the Anze Kopitar four goal game, which will forever be remembered as Jonathan Quick's last as an LA Kings. And a 6-4 barn burner in October during the Kings' "identity crisis" as Todd McLellan likes to call it.
But Saturday's game was anything but weird. It was Kings hockey on full display and the kind of play the team hopes to carry into the postseason.
"Yeah, we talked about it before the game, they've scored a lot of goals against us this year and we wanted to tighten that up," said Doughty on Saturday's game being an example of how the team wants to play. "There's a chance we could play them in the playoffs, you never know. So, we wanted to tighten that up and we did a good job. I thought Korpi(salo) did an amazing job."
"Most definitely, I think for the majority of these games we've won we've outplayed the other team for almost 60 minutes and that's an important thing to be able to do, to take into the playoffs," Doughty continued. "Because that's the only way, not the only way, but that's a big part of it. Really like the way we're playing right now, but we've got to keep it going as the playoffs approach."
The Kings haven't given up more than two goals in a game during their 11 game point streak and a big reason for that is solid play from their goalies.
Saturday was Joonas Korpisalo's game and he had another solid game.
He's only been on the team for a few weeks, but he's quickly become comfortable within the Kings' system.
"Yeah for sure, I've played what, five games now?" said Korpisalo. "Like you said, every game is the same here, everyone knows what's expected of each other. And it shows, we play like that every night, so it's really cool to play behind that kind of team."
That system is a big reason why the Kings are being talked about as dark horse candidates to come out of the west. And the players are confident in that system.
"Oh, 100%, I think every time there's a big moment we play well," said Korpsialo. "Especially here at the end, just scoring goals at the right moments, those are huge."
The Kings system is very rigid and places a big emphasis on defensive structure. They don't give up a lot of chances and make goalies' lives easier.
"Yeah, I mean a lot of the shots come from outside," said Korpisalo. "Not too many grade As from right in front of me. Of course, there's going to be some, and you have to make those timely saves. But, it's fun to play there."
A big part of Saturday's game was Blake Lizotte's five minute major.
Lizotte cross checked Josh Morrissey in the face and was ejected from the game, leaving the Kings with just three centers for a period and some change.
This puts extra pressure on the other centers to fill in and take a few extra shifts. And according to McLellan, it's even more difficult when it's a high energy player like Lizotte you lose.
"Yeah, we talked about that. Losing Lizzo is hard to begin with, because he’s energizes our team," said McLellan. "He does a lot of really good things and I thought he energized our penalty kill tonight, everybody wanted to kill for him. We talked about dismantling some of the lines, obviously Quinton can play in the middle, Gabe can play in the middle, Mooresy’s played in the middle, but we also wanted to run Kup a little bit more, get his minutes up to see if he could handle it. He did a really good job. We juggled around a little bit and got through it. "
There's maybe no one happier than McLellan to see his team give up two or fewer goals over the last 11 games. He's a coach that preaches doing the little things right and a defense first mentality, so a stretch like the one the Kings are on is exactly what he wants to see.
"That is something that we can hang our hats on and that we’re pleased about," said McLellan. "Again, I don’t go in and trumpet it in the locker room, but we take a lot of pride in that. We feel like we’ve got to protect the goaltenders and help them out, the D and the forwards, and a lot goes into that. Shot blocking, faceoff coverages, breakouts, shift length, you can go on and on, it goes into defending. That we will acknowledge and that we will keep preaching for sure."
With Lizotte potentially out for tomorrows game, if he's suspended, someone like Rasmus Kupari might get a chance to move up the lineup. One, or both, of Arthur Kaliyev and Jaret Anderson-Dolan might draw in tomorrow. Player McLellan says are difficult to keep out of the lineup. And it isn't something McLellan looks forward to.
"No, I wish we could play five lines and everyone gets in," said McLellan on having so many options when healthy. "But we're looking young men in the eyes that, their careers are on the line and they want to play every night. And sometimes we have to tell them 'you're coming out and you're playing really well.' That's the most difficult thing to do. The easy thing to do is, 'hey you know what? Get your crap together because you're not doing these things so watch a game.' It's not fun, no one likes to do it, but it's way easier because you have a case built in front of you. Tomorrow if we make changes it's going to be hard to build a case, sometimes it's just, somebody else is getting a turn."