Kings put success into perspective
We've all seen that football player start celebrating a few yards from the goal line only to have a defender strip the ball from him and turn a sure score into a handful of nothing but shame and embarrassment.
The Los Angeles Kings are trying desperately not to be that football player. A team that started the season with the highest expectations since Wayne Gretzky rode into town in the fall of 1988 have, for the most part, met and exceeded those expectations. As of Thursday morning, the Kings were sitting atop the Western Conference and were within a point of the overall lead in the NHL standings.
The last time the Kings were at the top of their conference this late in the season was during the 1990-91 season, and the conference had a different name, the Campbell. They have the best 35-game points total since that first season Gretzky arrived from Edmonton.
As they head to Calgary for Thursday's showdown with the Flames, the Kings are riding an 8-1-1 streak in their past 10 games and show no sign of letdown. Yet, there remains an air of caution among the Kings' coaching and management staff.
"I think in pro sports, you're never necessarily happy until you win the whole thing," assistant GM and decorated NHL netminder Ron Hextall told ESPN.com this week. "Certainly, when you see where we're sitting there's a certain sense that our guys have done a good job so far."
The words "so far" are the operative element of that statement.
When your team hasn't made the playoffs since 2002 and have won just one playoff round since the magical spring of 1993 when it lost in its only Stanley Cup finals appearance to Montreal, the view from the top can be a bit dizzying. As the first half of the regular season rapidly disappears, the message in Los Angeles remains constant: nothing has been accomplished, yet.
"It's a long season and we're not even halfway into it," Hextall said. He added that the team is obviously happy with the strides it has taken, but "we're also very cognizant of how quickly things can change."
Still, it's hard not to get a bit giddy thinking about the possibilities for one of the NHL's longest-suffering franchises.
There has been good chemistry built in large part thanks to the influence of key veterans like defenseman Sean O'Donnell, who came to L.A. after winning a Cup in Anaheim. There is defenseman Rob Scuderi, who was signed in the offseason after being a key component to the Pittsburgh Penguins' Cup success last season and the team's trip to the finals in 2008. Scuderi has played with Jack Johnson and, more recently, Drew Doughty, the two young anchors to the Kings' blue line.
Up front, Ryan Smyth has enjoyed a renaissance after being acquired in the offseason from Colorado, although he's been injured. Smyth is not the only one. The Kings have managed to play through injuries to top forwards Jarret Stoll and Wayne Simmonds.
The earliest Smyth could return is Dec. 26. Simmonds is gone long-term after knee surgery. Stoll left a game against Vancouver with a groin injury and missed Tuesday's victory over Edmonton. Rookies Brandon Segal and Andrei Loktionov are injured, as well.
There is a tendency for young teams who enjoy periods of success to perhaps assume a summit has been reached, and then let off and expect good things will happen as a matter of course. Hextall said they are working hard with their young players to ensure they don't fall into that mental trap of thinking they've accomplished something.
"It's tough. It's a lot of communication," he said. "We just can't be satisfied with where we're at right now because, if we are, inevitably we're going to tumble. We're in a good spot right now. We've played well, but we've had lots of breaks, too."
You know the old saying, though, about good teams making their own breaks, and the Kings seem to have fallen into that category. They've avoided the kinds of letdowns that afflict less mature teams.
After losing the first two games following Smyth's injury, the Kings have gone 9-2-1. The team is also second in the NHL in winning percentage in one-goal games with a sparkling 12-1-3 mark.
If it seems like there's a sense of urgency surrounding this team, it's because there is. This team has been three years in the making with GM Dean Lombardi and Hextall quietly accumulating top young talent and filling in gaps with veteran players who bring experience, players like O'Donnell, Smyth, Scuderi and Justin Williams, who was part of a young Carolina Hurricanes' run to a Cup in 2006.
"It's extremely important [for this team to succeed]," Hextall said. "We need the playoff experience. This franchise quite frankly needs to do something and get back on the map."
The Kings need to look no further than their opponent Thursday evening to understand how empty midseason praise can be. It wasn't long ago that the Flames were being touted as a Cup contender, a team that would and could challenge San Jose or Chicago as the top team in the Western Conference. But the Flames have lost three in a row and five of seven.
Through that period, they have managed to score just 13 times and their power play is on a 2-for-28 slide, including five straight games in which they failed to produce a goal on the man advantage.
Although they enter play Thursday just two points behind Northwest Division leader Colorado with three games in hand, the road-weary Flames are sixth in the conference and suddenly just four points out of ninth as they begin a stretch of playing seven of eight at home.
Just another reminder that it's never wise to start the celebration until you actually cross that line. And that line, friends, is a long way off for both these teams.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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