LOS ANGELES — The Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings meet Saturday night at Staples Center hoping to improve their chances for a playoff spot.
Both teams registered more than 100 points last season and were considered Stanley Cup contenders this year, but because of injuries and inconsistent play, the race to secure a playoff berth will likely go down to the final week of the regular season.
The Panthers (26-20-10) have been energized by the return of two of their best players, centers Jonathan Huberdeau and Alexander Barkov.
Now at full strength, Florida has won three straight games and six of its last seven games to get back into the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Panthers’ 4-1 win on Friday in Anaheim gave them a 3-0-0 record on the five-game road trip as they look to avenge their lone defeat in the streak, a 6-3 loss to Los Angeles on Feb. 9.
The Florida offense has flexed its muscle with 17 goals in road victories over Nashville, San Jose and Anaheim.
Despite the team’s goal-scoring success, Panthers coach Tom Rowe knows this level of production is unsustainable and he is focused on driving down goals against.
James Reimer, the winner against Anaheim, has delivered exceptional goaltending lately, posting a 6-1-1 record in his last eight starts, including a 35-save performance against the Ducks.
“I don’t know if we’ll score six or seven goals every night,” Rowe said after the win. “I kind of doubt that. Reimer was phenomenal tonight. We’re more concerned with shutting teams down and we did not give them any ice and worked great a defensive unit.”
Jaromir Jagr, the living legend who picked up his 1,901st NHL point with his winning goal on Friday, echoed Rowe’s sentiments. The third highest scorer in league history knows that championships are not won without strong defensive play.
“We got to learn to shut it down,” Jagr said. “We’re probably too young and too excited. You have to change the game a little bit and be more responsible.”
Los Angeles (28-24-4) continued their season-long inconsistent play in a 5-3 loss to the Pacific Division cellar-dwelling Arizona Coyotes on Thursday after returning from a five-day bye.
The Kings enter the game outside the top eight Western Conference playoff qualifiers but play 16 of their final 26 games at home. If they can improve their 23rd-ranked offense down the stretch, it is expected their strong defense (fifth best in the NHL) will carry them to a postseason berth.
The Kings played an uneven game in the loss to the Coyotes, starting slowly after the layoff and were never able to get even with Arizona because of a 41-save performance by goaltender Mike Smith.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter pointed at the performance of goaltender Peter Budaj that factored into the defeat.
“We were coming back all the way through there,” Sutter said. “The third goal is a bad goal against and the fourth goal is a long-shot, short-handed goal. It was two to nothing entering the third period and I still believe we were going to win.”
The game was the NHL debut of the Kings’ 2014 first-round draft selection Adrian Kempe.
General manager Dean Lombardi has shaken the roster in the hopes of finding more scoring ahead of the trade deadline. Kempe is the second rookie to join the veteran team this month. Defenseman Paul LaDue made his debut on Feb. 7 in Tampa Bay. Though he did not hit the score sheet, Kempe played exclusively with center Anze Kopitar in a prominent role and did not look overmatched.
“The first period I was a little nervous, I just tried to go out there and play hard,” Kempe said. “After a couple shifts, I started to get into it, and I think over the 60 minutes I had a pretty good game. But it’s always tough when you lose.”