- Neil Greenberg, NHL
Just a month ago, the defending Stanley Cup champions were 4-5-2 and five points out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference. The Los Angeles Kings have since moved past that sluggish start and are now among the playoff teams in the West with a record of 14-9-2 and 30 points. It is by a slim margin -- just two points separate the second seed from the 10th seed -- but the Kings have won 11 of their last 15 and are producing some offense, led by center Jeff Carter (tied for third in the league for goals with 17) and blueliner Slava Voynov, whose 18 points in 25 games almost surpasses his total production last season as a rookie (20 points in 54 games).
You can partially blame the goaltending for the slow start. Jonathan Quick stopped 1,380 of 1,479 even-strength shots faced last year (.933), and 315 of 347 during the penalty kill (.908). This year, his save percentages in those situations are .904 and .848, respectively.
"It's a stat that tells the truth," Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said after a 5-2 loss to Dallas. "That's one stat that doesn't lie, right? That's a stat that always holds true. Goals against, save percentage -- it's a big thing."
It's true: A goalie's save percentage is a big thing because it is the only stat the netminder has full control over. And we can be almost certain Quick's "true talent" level lies somewhere between a save percentage of .912 and .918 -- a far cry from his current .894 rate. So while Quick may not be the elite-level goaltender his stats portrayed him to be last season, he is not below league average, either. Expect his play to pick up down the stretch.
But not even poor goaltending should stop the Kings from becoming Cup favorites in the next few weeks, because they are the best puck possession team in the league right now. Last season, the Kings took 54 percent of the total number of unblocked even-strength shots in score-close situations (FenwickClose%) of the games they played, while this season that number is higher at 59 percent. Add to that the fact that Los Angeles starts even-strength faceoffs in the offensive zone more often than any other team in the league (37.7 percent) and you have a team that could be the first repeat Stanley Cup champion since Detroit won it back-to-back in 1997 and 1998.
Here are four other teams that look like serious Cup contenders down the stretch.
5hPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald