Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick deflects a shot for a save against the Canucks… (Darryl Dyck / Canadian Press…)
In mid-December, with the Kings foundering and scraping to score goals, General Manager Dean Lombardi reluctantly fired coach Terry Murray and hired Darryl Sutter. Lombardi's explanation was illuminating.
"With the expectations this year, it becomes more results-oriented," he said. "We're at the stage of the franchise where you're going to be judged on wins and losses and playoff rounds."
Judgment day will dawn on Wednesday, when the eighth-seeded Kings open the Stanley Cup playoffs against the league-topping Vancouver Canucks.
Since Lombardi took over in 2006, every assessment of the Kings has been based on their promise and potential to do something big someday. This will be their third successive playoff appearance. Someday has arrived.
Their road to this point was often tortured. They had few resources when Lombardi was hired and he needed time to restock the farm system and accumulate assets to trade for pieces he couldn't develop. The Kings were euphoric to make the playoffs in 2010 with 46 wins, 101 points and the No. 6 seeding, and they took their six-game loss to the Canucks as a bitter but useful learning experience. Last season they lost four of their last six regular-season games and slid to No. 7 with 46 wins and 98 points. They split their first two playoff games against San Jose and had a 4-0 lead in Game 3 but lost in overtime and again exited after six games.
They thought they could have done more, and this season they seemed poised to do it.
They ended a contract stalemate with defenseman Drew Doughty by locking him up long-term and brought in Mike Richards, envisioning that he and Anze Kopitar would form a one-two center punch that would rival any in the West. They were among the preseason favorites to win the Pacific Division and the conference.
Instead, they struggled to score and were at a tipping point when Lombardi fired Murray. They've shown more initiative offensively under Sutter and were 25-13-11 under his guidance after compiling a 15-14-4 record under Murray and interim coach John Stevens. They've benefited from the promotion of rookie forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan and defenseman Slava Voynov, who brought much-needed speed and passion. Players have said they're more sure of themselves and their roles under Sutter than they were under Murray, and that can only be good.
But they squandered a chance to win the division and get home-ice advantage, and though the non-call on Ryane Clowe's illegal reach Thursday was a travesty, it wasn't the reason they lost that game to San Jose and the No. 3 seeding. They're still prone to scoring lapses and haven't developed enough combativeness around the net. Recently they've taken bad penalties that stressed their excellent penalty killers.
It's also too soon to evaluate if Sutter called too often on goaltender Jonathan Quick, who was under duress all season. He gave up one goal or shut out the opposition 27 times but won only 18 of those games because his teammates didn't support him. He faded in 2010 after being overworked, and the Kings will have no chance against the Canucks if he's at anything less than his best.
The Kings are capable of beating Vancouver if about a dozen things go right.
Quick must be sharp — he can't give up any softies from the wing — and his defensemen must clear the slot. Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams must continue their late-season surges. Defenseman Willie Mitchell must continue to excel at both ends of the ice. In addition, playoff veteran Richards must produce, as must Jeff Carter. He gave them balance, speed and another scoring threat before he suffered an ankle bone bruise and missed the final five games. The Kings didn't practice Sunday, but he said last week he expected to be ready for the playoff opener.
With Carter in the lineup they have the potential to seriously test Vancouver's defense and capitalize on the possible absence of Canucks forward Daniel Sedin, who has been recovering from a concussion. If they can get into the crease and the head of goalie Roberto Luongo, they can give themselves a chance and put the sour ending to the regular season behind them.
It's probably expecting too much for all of those things to happen. But as Lombardi said, it's time to judge them on playoff rounds. Not potential.