Kings (16-14-4, 36 points) vs. San Jose Sharks (18-10-3, 39 points) at HP Pavilion, 7:30 p.m.
Five storylines to track:
1. It’s progress – Call it a baby step for the Kings. Shoot, they would probably get down on their hands and knees and crawl just to move forward at this point. They beat the lowly Ducks in a shootout, 3-2, on Thursday night at Staples Center, their third victory in the last five games but 13thstraight scoring two goals or less. Never mind that it was Darryl Sutter’s debut as coach of the Kings, the players needed the victory for themselves. Now it’s time to figure out how to take another step forward and steal two points from the Pacific Division-leading Sharks.
2. Within reach – If the Kings have any hope of getting back into the Western Conference playoff race, they can’t afford to just beat up on the weaklings. Of the 10 teams above them in the standings, only Minnesota has lost more games than it has won in the last 10. The Kings, meanwhile, are 4-6-0 in that span. Fortunately, the top Pacific Division teams aren’t exactly steamrolling the competition. Of the six divisions, only the Pacific does not have a team with at least 43 points. San Jose, Dallas and Phoenix each lead the way with 39. Despite all their struggles the last two months, the Kings are just three points behind that crowd.
3. Rafter spot – He has played only 26 games with the Kings but they might as well retire his number already. Mike Richards is proving to be as important to the organization as any player since Wayne Gretzky, and even the Great One missed most of the 1992-93 regular season during the organization’s only run to the Stanley Cup finals. The Kings won’t get anywhere near the playoffs if they lose Richards for any length of time again. He returned from an eight-game absence with a head injury and scored the first goal against the Ducks. When he scores at least a point this season, the Kings are 12-2-2.
4. Wearing the stripes – When times are tough, teams often look to their captain for answers. Richards was the captain in Philadelphia the last three seasons, but Dustin Brown owns that title in L.A. He called out his teammates after an 8-2 loss in Detroit last Saturday night and then backed up his harsh words with two stellar performances. He scored third-period goals the last two games to help the Kings get into overtime, and then produced the deciding goal in both shootouts to earn the two points. Along the way, he displayed his other specialty, delivering a number of glass-rattling hits on opponents.
5. Shark down – Sharks forward Martin Havlat wasn’t exactly playing up to expectations in San Jose after the Sharks gave up Dany Heatley in the offseason to pry Havlat from the Minnesota Wild. Now they’ll have to get by with nothing from Havlat for the next eight weeks. Havlat tore a tendon in his left hamstring while jumping over the boards to start a shift Saturday night against the Oilers. He had two goals in 26 games this season, well off the pace he set last season when he scored 22 goals for the Wild. He has done well against the Kings in his career, however, totaling 18 points in 24 career games.