With seven Pittsburgh Penguins players heading to the Olympics in a little more than a week, it’d be easy for the Eastern Conference’s best team to have its minds wandering elsewhere on occasion.
The Penguins try to stay focused on a two-game trip that begins Thursday night in Los Angeles, where the Kings are hoping a return to Staples Center can help them snap out of a lengthy funk.
"As we get closer (to the Olympics), we are starting to think about it more and more," said Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby, who will captain Team Canada. "It’s not a bad thing. We’re going out there, trying to make sure your game is where it needs to be, not only for your team, but playing at the right level for when we get (to Sochi).
"It’s a good thing, I think it makes everyone better, but it’s not something that I think should affect playing for (the Penguins)."
Pittsburgh (37-14-2) was shut out for just the third time this season in its latest road game, 3-0 at Dallas on Saturday, but it bounced back by beating Buffalo by the same score Monday. Crosby had a pair of assists while Marc-Andre Fleury made 24 saves for his NHL-leading 29th victory.
‘When you play 82 every one isn’t going to be perfect, but we’re trying to be the best, not just into late June, but every game," said coach Dan Bylsma, who will also lead the U.S. team in Sochi.
Though the Penguins have a 15-point cushion atop the Metropolitan Division and a five-point lead over Boston for the conference’s best record, there are areas to improve. Pittsburgh has allowed 3 goals per game over its last 10 after surrendering an average of 2.21 in its first 43.
"We still need to get better as a team and grow,” said winger Chris Kunitz, who will also play for Canada. "We have 30-some games before the playoffs to make sure we’re running on all cylinders, and make sure we’re the best team going into the playoffs."
The Kings (30-19-6), who will send six players to Sochi, are having issues of their own heading into the break – mostly on the offensive end. Los Angeles has scored just twice in its last four games, and it’s 1-5-1 in its last seven after Tuesday’s 3-0 loss at Phoenix.
"There are team-wide frustrations and a personal frustration for some guys in here," captain Dustin Brown, who has failed to produce a point in the last eight games, told the league’s official website. "I mean, I’m frustrated with the way I’m playing; it doesn’t lend itself to getting goals and getting points."
Tuesday’s defeat was the end of an eight-game stretch in 13 days away from Staples that included Saturday’s 3-0 loss to Anaheim at Dodger Stadium.
Staples Center hasn’t been much kinder to the Kings this month – they’ve scored once in three of their last four at home – but Los Angeles’ January struggles have at least partially been a product of a schedule that’s included games against St. Louis, Boston, San Jose and Anaheim twice in the past two weeks.
"It’s getting a little late in the season right now, there’s a lot of hockey games, and we’re playing a lot of tough teams," forward Jordan Nolan told the team’s website. "So I think it’s definitely wearing down not only on our team, but on every team."
The Kings and Penguins haven’t played since Jan. 5, 2011, a 3-2 Pittsburgh shootout win at Staples.
Crosby hasn’t played in Los Angeles since November 2009. Evgeni Malkin has five goals and two assists in four career games against the Kings – all Pittsburgh victories.