- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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We've been waiting all season for the defending Stanley Cup champions to once and for all announce their intentions.
For better or for worse, those intentions will be made crystal clear by the end of this week.
The Los Angeles Kings control their destiny, sitting in a wild-card spot by the thinnest of margins as they get set for their final four games of the regular season. These games include a pair of head-to-head matchups that should prove pivotal toward figuring out the Western Conference playoff picture.
It begins Monday night with a huge one in Vancouver, as the Canucks sit three points ahead of the Kings in the No. 2 spot in the Pacific Division.
"Everything is right in front of us: there's four games left and we've got Vancouver and Calgary among those games," veteran Kings center Jarret Stoll told ESPN.com Monday morning from Vancouver. "You obviously can't look ahead, this is a huge game tonight in Vancouver to start us off. We've played well here before, we've got the confidence to win a game here tonight. We've just got to play the right way, play our way."
The Kings spanked the Canucks 4-0 on March 12 in Vancouver, limiting the host team to 19 shots. But the Canucks returned the favor March 21 at Staples Center with a 4-1 win in which they launched 42 shots at the Kings.
The Kings lead the season series 3-1-0, including another win in Vancouver, 3-2 on Jan. 1.
So there's comfort in playing in Vancouver, and certainly Monday night presents the chance for the Kings to not only to improve their playoff chances, but also to perhaps send a message in what potentially could be a first-round playoff matchup.
"If that does happen, and we definitely hope it does because it means we're in, but, yeah, you just get that confidence and that little swagger against these guys if you win tonight," Stoll said. "Not that long ago, we came in here and played a pretty impressive game and beat them here. Hopefully, we can do that again and just play well in this building, that gives you confidence, hopefully, the next time out there.
"It's going to be a great matchup tonight," added Stoll, a tinge of excitement in his voice. "I think you will be able to tell from the first five minutes of the game [that] it's going to be ramped up, it's going to be playoff-style hockey. Both teams are going to be pushing pretty hard."
The Kings are tied with the Winnipeg Jets at 92 points to begin the final week, but own the regulation and overtime wins (ROW) tiebreaker. The Flames are just a point ahead of the Kings for the No. 3 slot in the Pacific Division, and the Flames host the Kings Thursday night. The Jets and Flames tangle to wrap the season Saturday night.
The Kings also play Tuesday at Edmonton and wrap things up Saturday afternoon at home against the rival San Jose Sharks.
So a lot can happen here over the next six days.
What's encouraging for the Kings is they're coming off impressive back-to-back victories, an 8-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers and a 3-1 win over the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday, in which they limited the Avalanche to just 10 shots (tying a Kings franchise record for lowest shot total by an opponent).
Stoll believes the Kings' vaunted defensive game, such a staple of the 2012 and 2014 Cup victories, is coming into form.
"I think it is, it's just tightening everything up. We try to do things as a group of five, as a group of six in our own zone, we talk about that so much," said Stoll. "Our game starts below the goal line and being heavy, hard and physical and winning those puck battles; getting that puck possession and then going up the ice together. When we're spread out and our timing is not right, we're giving teams too much time and space. That means we're in our zone too much and giving up shots. Giving up 10 shots, 15 shots, 20 shots, that means you're not spending too much time in your own zone, and that's a good thing."
Despite their up-and-down season, the Kings remain a terrific puck-possession team, which is why if they can get in, a lot of people will like their chances again to go deep.
"Puck possession is pretty important with our team, it starts with faceoffs; it starts with battling down low and getting that puck and hanging on to it," said Stoll. "Hopefully, it's coming together and we can be consistent with that."
Same old Kings, meanwhile, making their fans sweat it out to the end. Last season, the Kings finished third in the Pacific, which meant not having home-ice advantage for the opening three rounds of the playoffs. No problem, as they won three consecutive seven-game series en route to a Cup. And, of course, in 2012, they got into the playoffs by the skin of their teeth as the No. 8 seed en route to their first Cup.
So this year’s script is just par for the course. Not that the Kings planned it that way.
"It's definitely not something we wanted to keep doing here," said Stoll. "But we hear it all the time from people, fans of ours, neighbors, they all say, 'You guys are so stressful to watch.' Well, yeah, it's stressful for us to play sometimes the way we do things. But you know what, getting in is getting in. I'm sure everybody is going to say that now but everybody is so good, the league is so good, that if you're an eighth seed or a wild-card team, you're playing a first or second seed in the conference, they are great matchups now. There aren't many upsets now, it's just good hockey.
"I think everybody has realized that. Once you get into the playoffs, you can win a round, you can be a Stanley Cup champion, it's that good of a league."
First things first for the Kings -- getting in.
We've been waiting all season for the defending Stanley Cup champions to once and for all announce their intentions.For better or for worse, those intentions will be made crystal clear by the end of this week.