In essence, the playoffs have already arrived in the Western Conference. On Saturday night, a few hundred miles apart, the eighth-place Kings hosted ninth-place Calgary, and seventh-place Phoenix hosted 11th-place Dallas.
The four teams, at the start of the night, were separated by a total of four points, and the Kings are right in the middle of the playoff battle. On Tuesday, they start a two-game road trip against Phoenix and 10th-place Colorado.
The Kings, expected to contend for the Pacific Division title and perhaps the Western Conference crown, have now fallen into ninth place in the conference after back-to-back shutout losses, the latest on Saturday in a 1-0 loss to Calgary.
With only 23 games remaining in the regular season, the Kings face a road-heavy final stretch and have the lowest-scoring offense in the NHL, but coach Darryl Sutter said he’s not over-emphasizing the standings at this moment.
“I don’t really look at it like that,” Sutter said. “I look at it like there (are) two spots for seven or eight teams. So I don’t see any difference in those teams. We played an awesome game against Phoenix the other night, and we lost. It was the first time we lost to them in regulation this year.
“At the end of the day, it’s going to come down to your head-to-head against those teams. That’s how close the teams are. There’s no difference in wins, losses. There’s just not enough of a gap in those teams.”
–The Kings cut ties Saturday with one of their most veteran players, as winger Trent Hunter cleared waivers and was assigned to Manchester of the American Hockey League. Hunter’s roster spot will likely be taken by Jarret Stoll, who is on the injured-reserve list but is on the verge of returning from a lower-body injury. Hunter, a veteran of 497 NHL games, signed with the Kings in late September after being invited to training camp as a non-roster player. Hunter was limited to part-time duty with the Kings and rarely played above the fourth line. He had two goals and five assists in 38 games this season but had been a healthy scratch in four of the Kings’ previous nine games. –Before Saturday’s game, the Kings honored former high-scoring winger Charlie Simmer as part of their “Legends Night” series, and the current Kings wore Simmer-era vintage purple-and-gold uniforms in the game against Calgary. Simmer, now part of the Calgary Flames’ broadcast team, was a part of the Kings’ famed “Triple Crown Line” in the late 1970s and early ’80s, along with Marcel Dionne and Dave Taylor. He ranks seventh in Kings history with 222 goals. Simmer spent parts of eight seasons with the Kings before he was traded to the Boston Bruins in 1984. QUOTE TO NOTE: “People connect effort with scoring. Well, that’s really unfair to these players, because they friggin’ lay it out there, and they will tonight. They’re like playoff games. For me, (these games are) a good measuring stick for a lot of guys who either haven’t been in that position or haven’t had success in that position.” — Kings coach Darryl Sutter.
ROSTER REPORT PLAYER NOTES: –LW Dustin Penner returned to the lineup after missing the previous three games as a healthy scratch. Coach Darryl Sutter has been openly critical in recent days of Penner, who is making $4.25 million in the last year of his contract and who entered Saturday’s game with five goals and eight assists in 43 games. The Kings acquired Penner from Edmonton at the trade deadline last year, but he has yet to meet expectations in a top-six forward role. Penner, who has spent most of this season on the Kings’ second line, returned to the lineup in a fourth-line role, alongside C Colin Fraser and RW Brad Richardson. –RW Kevin Westgarth missed the game Saturday, officially as a healthy scratch, but Sutter indicated that Westgarth had suffered an injured hand in Thursday’s game against Phoenix. Westgarth had a third-period fight against the Coyotes’ Paul Bissonnette. Westgarth stayed in that game, and was a full participant in Saturday’s morning skate, but RW Dustin Penner took Westgarth’s spot in the lineup. Sutter indicated that Westgarth could have played, were the Kings desperately in need of a winger, so the hand injury is not believed to be serious. –C Jarret Stoll missed his fourth consecutive game because of a lower-body muscle strain, but it doesn’t appear as though Stoll will be out of the lineup for much longer. Stoll had been considered a 50-50 bet to play in Saturday’s game after being a full participant in the morning skate, but Sutter kept Stoll out of the lineup, saying that the veteran forward needed a full-contact practice. The Kings are expected to practice Monday in advance of Tuesday’s game at Phoenix, so barring any setbacks, it seems likely that Stoll will return to the lineup against the Coyotes.