Scuderi ready to improve on Kings' rough start
Expected roles reversed for Kings and Wild
LOS ANGELES -- If at the beginning of the season you had wagered all of your old hockey cards on whether it would be the Los Angeles Kings or the Minnesota Wild that would have avoided most of the pitfalls thus far in the schedule, we're guessing you'd be staring at an empty cardboard box right about now.
We're pretty sure that, outside of rookie coach Mike Yeo and his team, the smart bet would have been that the Kings were ready to take that next step forward, while the Wild were, well, still the Wild, and that meant pitfall city.
Instead, the expected roles have been pretty much reversed as the Kings woke up Wednesday morning in eighth place in the Western Conference -- just one point ahead of ninth-place San Jose, which has played three fewer games.
The Kings are 3-4-1 in their past eight and appear to be in a kind of maturation holding pattern.
The Wild, meanwhile, continue to defy most preseason prognosticators by holding down the top spot -- not just in the Western Conference, but in the entire NHL, with an 18-7-3 mark.
Both teams' play qualifies as a surprise, but if you equate surprise with some level of angst, then the Kings are a curious case study.
Although they remain one of the most difficult teams to play against -- ranking fourth in goals against and eighth on the penalty kill -- the offensive depth expected to be the hallmark of a team ready to jump into the Stanley Cup fray has deserted head coach Terry Murray.
The veteran head coach said he was pleased with the team's effort against Anaheim on Tuesday even though they took the loss on a last-minute goal by the Ducks. He is also hoping to see his blue-line corps more active in the offense, believing that is one solution to the team's offensive woes.
The defensemen "as a group can be much more involved," Murray said.
The Kings rank dead last in goals per game and, perhaps even more mystifying, have been just average at home, carrying an 8-7-1 record at Staples Center going into Thursday's home match against the Wild.
The team is rock bottom in five-on-five scoring and a disappointing 24th (tied) in goals scored at home.
"I think it's some kind of pressure we feel towards playing at home and towards our fans," star forward Anze Kopitar acknowledged after the Kings' practice Wednesday.
"I'd be lying if I'd say there's no frustration in the room."
Kopitar has done his share, leading the team with 10 goals and 16 assists in 27 games. But the Kings' leading goal-scorer Mike Richards (11 goals) is out indefinitely after taking a hard hit from Florida's Sean Bergenheim last week.
Kopitar was candid in discussing the Kings' opponent from Minnesota, acknowledging that he couldn't picture them sitting atop the NHL standings at this point.
"I don't think anybody had them picked as a top team," he said. "To be honest, I didn't pick them to be as high. It just seems they get it done every night."
The Wild have ridden out injuries up and down their lineup to post an impressive 10-2 record over their past 12 games.
Ironically, the game that may have really sparked a change in the Wild's fortunes was a 5-2 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles on Nov. 12.
Although no Wild player has reached double digits in goals, five players have tallied eight times.
Beyond that, unsung players continue to step up, the latest being rookie netminder Matt Hackett, who replaced an injured Josh Harding early in Tuesday's game against San Jose and stopped all 34 shots he faced to help steal a 2-1 victory.
While Harding isn't expected to play Thursday, Hackett may get a chance at his first-ever NHL start if Nicklas Backstrom isn't healthy enough to go.
"We're having fun," Yeo told ESPN.com Wednesday.
Not that the Wild are without their flaws. They rank 25th in goals per game and are 19th on the power play, although Yeo noted they are starting to score some more "dirty" goals in tight to the net and the man advantage unit is working a little bit better in recent days.
"We know we can't take our foot off the gas," he said.
The Kings, meanwhile, are hoping to find that fuel reserve that most believed would propel them forward in the standings and into the playoffs this year.
"I think the pieces are here to take that next step," GM Dean Lombardi told ESPN.com.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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