It might be early, but so far the Kings look OK without Ilya Kovalchuk

On paper, adding Ilya Kovalchuk to the Los Angeles Kings seemed like a no-brainer. I still remember the general consensus: sure, it might make it tougher to retain the team’s second-tier young players (Drew Doughty wasn’t – and isn’t – going anywhere) but sometimes you have to break a few prospect eggs to make a 50-goal scorer omelet, right?

While I count(ed) myself among the few who considered Kovalchuk a risky gamble, even I thought that the high-scoring winger made some sense for the Kings. Well, as you probably know, the Kings lost out to the New Jersey Devils in the protracted “Kovalchuk Sweepstakes” and changed direction by adding wounded but talented shutdown defenseman Willie Mitchell as their Free Agent Plan B.

It might be a bit hasty to draw too many conclusions from the first couple weeks of the regular season, but Craig Custance of the Sporting News points out that the Kings are doing well (3-1 record, tied 1-1 with the Carolina Hurricanes as of this moment) while the Devils are dealing with a troubling start.

While the struggling Devils try to figure out where to fit all their high-end left wingers — not to mention maneuver around their impossibly tight salary cap situation — the Kings have quietly started the season 3-1.

They’re winning because Jonathan Quick arrived at camp in better shape, ready to fight off the talented Jonathan Bernier as the Kings’ starting goalie. So far, Quick is 3-0-0, with a 0.97 goals-against average and .963 save percentage.

They’re also winning because Plan B in the post-Kovalchuk recruitment might be better than Plan A.

Custance points out the perks of having Mitchell: it gives the Kings the opportunity to pair one, ultra-responsible stay-at-home defenseman with one gifted young blueliner on their top two D pairs. (Mitchell often skates with Drew Doughty while 2009 free agent signing Rob Scuderi usually watches Jack Johnson’s back.)

Of course, it’s not all as sunny as the weather in Los Angeles. There’s a reason the Kings targeted Kovalchuk, after all: their offensive depth is lacking. Beyond the underrated ace Anze Kopitar, the team sports some works in progress such as Wayne Simmonds, solid but unspectacular pieces including Dustin Brown and frequent IR inhabitants like Justin Williams.

On the bright side, Custance points out that the Kings possess something that makes them rare among predicted Cup contenders: cap space (I’d say around $6 million as their situation is a little muddy on CapGeek.com right now).

They’ll surely be in on the Brad Richards trade talk if the Dallas Stars decide they can’t afford to pay their center, who suddenly is being called the premier 2011 potential unrestricted free agent.

And if Jarome Iginla ever becomes available in Calgary? He might be the perfect fit.

It would be an awfully bitter pill for the Stars to swallow if they traded Richards to a division rival, especially if they continue their (slightly improbable?) playoff pace. Then again, in this cold money-driven/ cap-driven world, the Kings might be able to offer the best package of prospects. My guess is that Kings GM Dean Lombardi would want to sign Richards to a medium-sized contract extension if he decided to go that route, though.

Iginla would be an easier but probably lower-end “get” for the Kings at this point in his career, although his leadership would be nice in the locker room and his personality would be a great fit for the market. The problem with Iginla is that if his downward trend continues, he still has two more seasons and $14 million left on his contract (or $7 million per season through 2012-13).

Regardless, weighing the pros and cons of adding an aging star during the trade deadline is certainly a happier situation than wondering how you’re possibly going to get under the salary cap. It’s still early, but so far, it seems like Lombardi’s mostly slow-and-steady approach is paying dividends … even if Lombardi clearly wanted to compromise that tortoise pace for a hare who left him the dust for New Jersey.

Video: AHL goalie Jonas Gustavsson scores his first career goal

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He didn’t shoot, but Jonas Gustavsson still scored.

The former NHL netminder, now with the Bakersfield Condors in the AHL, scored his first career goal Friday, as part of his team’s victory over the San Diego Gulls.

From the AHL:

With San Diego goaltender Dustin Tokarski on the bench for an extra attacker and the Gulls working on a power play, Gustavsson made a save before an errant San Diego pass slid down the length of the ice and into the vacated net at 16:56 of the third period.

Gustavsson is the fifth AHL goaltender to be credited with a goal without actually shooting the puck into the opposition net. In addition to his goal, Gustavsson stopped 30 of 31 shots in the Condors victory.

Bolts and Islanders both win, which is bad news for Bruins

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The New York Islanders and Tampa Bay Lightning each had to work overtime to decide their separate games, but when they ended, both clubs were victorious.

And that makes things even more interesting in the Eastern Conference wild card race.

With their shootout win in Pittsburgh, the Islanders tie the Bruins in points but take over the final playoff spot for now with fewer games played. The Lightning, despite an abundance of injuries all season, are just a point back of Boston and New York.

Nikita Kucherov scored the winner for Tampa Bay against the Red Wings. He’s up to 38 goals, which is second most in the league behind Sidney Crosby, currently at 42 goals.

Sellers leading up to the trade deadline, and without Steven Stamkos since the middle of November, the Lightning are in the thick of this race, even if others may have counted them out.

“Once again, people counted us out,” defenseman Victor Hedman told the Tampa Bay Times. “But we showed a lot of character. And we’re right back in it.”

The Bolts don’t play again until Monday, when they host the Chicago Blackhawks — only one of the hottest teams in the league.

Meanwhile, Saturday’s busy slate of games includes a showdown between the Bruins and Islanders. For Boston, it’s a chance for redemption after a particularly costly third period against Tampa Bay on Thursday.

What is wrong with the Sharks?

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Not that long ago, the San Jose Sharks appeared well on their way to winning the Pacific Division title.

On March 14, they had a seven-point lead on both Anaheim and Calgary. Gone is that advantage. Not only have the Ducks surged back into the fight for the division, but the Sharks have lost five in a row and are having a terrible time of late creating any offense.

The Ducks defeated the Jets on Friday, moving into a tie with the Sharks at 91 points.

San Jose’s struggles hit a new low Friday with a 6-1 loss to the Dallas Stars, a team with its own flaws and nowhere close to a playoff position.

At one point midway through the second period, the Sharks trailed the Stars by four goals and had only six lousy shots on goal. During this skid, San Jose has scored only five goals.

Earlier this week, members of the Sharks said they weren’t terribly worried about this losing streak. The losses, they had said, were in close games, which is true: San Jose lost three consecutive one-goal games.

“When I look at the losing streak, we dominated some of those games for long periods and found ways to lose. You never like to lose, but I’m not that concerned,” Sharks coach Pete DeBoer told CSN Bay Area. “We’ve got to obviously end it. We’ve got to get healthy. I don’t see a bunch of symptoms of a team that can’t get this fixed pretty quickly.”

This, however, was a blowout. Adam Cracknell recorded the hat trick, pushing his single-season career-high in goals to 10.

The performance at one point forced DeBoer to take a timeout, in which he expressed his displeasure.

Making matters worse for the Sharks: Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic left the game early in the third period and was put under further evaluation. He didn’t return.

The Sharks visit the Nashville Predators on Saturday.

Halak and the Islanders defeat Penguins, move into wild card spot

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Quite a hockey game between the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins on Friday.

It offered plenty to enjoy — Phil Kessel‘s dominant but unfruitful shift in overtime, a combined 86 shots on goal between both teams, a showcase of skill from the likes of John Tavares and Sidney Crosby, and two strong goaltending performances from Jaroslav Halak and Marc-Andre Fleury.

Josh Ho-Sang, who wears No. 66, which is just fine in the eyes of Mario Lemieux, set up Brock Nelson‘s goal in the second period.

The Islanders and their fans probably aren’t hung up on style points at this juncture of the season. They just care about wins and points in the standings, and those are exactly what New York accomplished with a 4-3 shootout win in Pittsburgh.

Anthony Beauvillier and Tavares scored for the Islanders in the shootout. Halak made 37 stops, including a game-saver in overtime off Matt Cullen. Halak trapped the puck, which was right on the goal line, between his legs on a chance from in front. The play was reviewed but no goal.

The win gives the Islanders 82 points, which is the same total as the struggling Boston Bruins.

However, the Islanders, with one game in hand on the Bruins, take over the final wild card spot in the East for now.