Two years after winning the Cup, the Kings’ ‘mix’ comes into question

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Oh, how quickly things can change in the NHL.

Two years after winning their first Stanley Cup in franchise history, the Los Angeles Kings find themselves down 3-0 in their first-round series with the San Jose Sharks, one loss away from getting swept out of the playoffs without even winning a game.

Dating back to last year’s Western Conference Final versus Chicago, L.A. has now lost seven of its last eight postseason contests. As a result, some are wondering if changes need to be made.

From the Los Angeles Times’ Helene Elliott:

Time is running out on their season and, maybe, on this group.

They’ll always have their 2012 Cup triumph, the sweet memory of rising from the No. 8 seed to dominate every playoff series they won and bring indescribable joy to fans who had suffered through decades of disappointment. But with a young team and a stud goaltender in Quick, that seemed like only the beginning of an era.

Now it seems near an end, because the mix simply isn’t right anymore.

Los Angeles has six players signed to long-term deals: Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, and Jonathan Quick. Anze Kopitar is only locked up for the next two seasons, but it seems unlikely the Kings would ever let him become an unrestricted free agent. Youngsters Jake Muzzin and Tyler Toffoli probably aren’t going anywhere either.

Besides those 10 players, though, one has to wonder how much the roster could turn over in the next year or two. The NHL is a young man’s league, and key cogs of that 2012 championship team — veterans like Willie Mitchell, Justin Williams, and Jarret Stoll — aren’t getting any younger.

There’s also the matter of goal-scoring. Specifically, the lack of it. As much as the Kings control the puck, they just don’t put many in the net. In 2011-12, L.A. finished the regular season with the second-worst offense in the NHL. A championship helped that fact get overlooked. The offense improved to 10th in the shortened 2013 campaign, but it struggled again this season, finishing fifth from the bottom of the league, averaging just 2.42 goals per game.

Some of that could be related to personnel, and maybe there’s a bit of bad luck mixed in there, too. But for general manager Dean Lombardi, it’s at least worth asking if coach Darryl Sutter’s system is stifling the Kings’ creativity. Because let’s put it this way: a player with Doughty’s considerable offensive talents is capable of more than 37 points in a season.

Now, that being said, there’s always the risk of overreacting. We’ve seen what happens when teams try to become something they’re not, and the results can be ugly. (Just ask fans of the Capitals and Canucks.) The Kings won the Cup with great defense and goaltending, plus a healthy dose of size and strength. The core is still fairly young. Heck, save for a bad bounce, they could only be down 2-1 to the Sharks, with a chance to tie the series Thursday at home.

Still, if you’re not constantly trying to improve, you’re asking for trouble in the NHL, where there’s not a ton of difference between a championship team and first-round victim.

A big night for the rookies and a big win for the Maple Leafs

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William Nylander helped get Toronto started on Thursday, extending his point streak to 10 games — a new Maple Leafs franchise record for a rookie.

Connor Brown finished it with his 17th goal of the season, securing a 4-2 win for the Maple Leafs over the New Jersey Devils.

Toronto has won three in a row and moves three points clear of Boston for third in the Atlantic Division, with a game in hand, which further helps the Maple Leafs’ playoff chances with nine games remaining on their schedule.

Just another big night for Toronto’s impressive crop of rookies.

Auston Matthews had a pair of assists.

— Nylander had a goal and an assist. He set one and tied another franchise rookie record on Thursday.

Mitch Marner had an assist, giving him 40 helpers this season, which ties the franchise rookie record set in 1943-44.

“They’re good players,” said coach Mike Babcock, per the Toronto Star. “I didn’t know Marner would make the team. I knew Matthews and Nylander were good players. I knew Brown and (Zach) Hyman were relentless. I had no idea (Nikita) Zaitsev was as close to how good he is.

“We have lots of good players.”

In May of 2015, Babcock predicted at his introductory press conference that the Maple Leafs would, during their massive rebuild, endure “pain.” This was, he said, to be a long process — a “massive, massive challenge.”

Approaching the two-year anniversary of that event — after all the losing that franchise and its fan base has gone through, which obviously helped them with the Matthews lottery last year — the Maple Leafs are poised to make the playoffs with a nucleus of young players that present even more promise for the future.

“We just want to get in to the playoffs, and give ourselves a chance,” continued Babcock. “We’re playing well, and finding a way to win games. That’s what we have to continue to do.”

Capitals defeat Blue Jackets in clash of Metropolitan Division powers

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WASHINGTON (AP) T.J. Oshie scored the shootout winner as the Washington Capitals overcame a stellar performance from Columbus goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky to beat the Blue Jackets 2-1 Thursday night.

Despite 44 saves from Bobrovsky, the Capitals reached 104 points and extended their lead atop the Metropolitan Division and NHL standings. Oshie engendered memories of his Sochi Olympic shootout performance by again beating Bobrovsky, the goalie he scored on four times in six chances that day.

Dmitry Orlov finally cracked Bobrovsky early in the third period on Washington’s 35th shot of the game. Orlov’s goal tied the score after Seth Jones beat Braden Holtby on a wild scramble early in the third for his first goal since Feb. 7.

Holtby had 29 saves in regulation and overtime and three more in the shootout to pick up his 38th victory of the season, one shy of Bobrovsky for the league lead.

A showdown between two of the top three teams in the league jockeying for position atop the Metropolitan Division lacked a playoff feel. But the matchup of two likely Vezina Trophy finalists lived up to that billing as Bobrovsky and Holtby went back and forth with big saves.

Bobrovsky entered the night first in wins, goals-against average and save percentage with Holtby second, second and third in those categories. The 2013 Vezina winner could also be an MVP contender this season given his value to Columbus’ third playoff berth in franchise history.

“When he’s in his game it’s very hard to score on him,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, who had eight shots stopped by one of his Russian national teammates. “He likes the big moments, he likes pressure. His worth ethic is unbelievable. … In my opinion he’s one of the best goalies in the league right now.”

Methot ‘out for weeks’ after suffering a shattered finger from Crosby clash

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The Ottawa Senators lost defenseman Marc Methot for the bulk of Thursday’s game against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and it seems he’ll be out for quite a while longer, too.

Methot was injured on a Sidney Crosby slash across the hand in the first period. He didn’t return to the game and there was no penalty called on the Penguins captain.

Footage showed the gruesome aftermath of the slash — Methot’s finger on his left hand bloodied and injured as he skated back to the bench.

“His finger is shattered and he’s out for weeks,” said Senators head coach Guy Boucher, per the Ottawa Sun.

Methot immediately confronted Crosby after the slash, which occurred as the Sens blue liner went to dump the puck into the Pittsburgh zone late in the first period.

The Senators got revenge, scoring a 2-1 shootout victory to move within a point of Montreal for the Atlantic Division lead. Crosby was also denied in the shootout.

NHL to make ‘special announcement’ in China next week

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The National Hockey League has announced it will make a “special announcement” at the LeSports Center in Beijing, China next Thursday.

In January, the league’s deputy commissioner Bill Daly made it clear the NHL has interest in playing games in China — likely starting out with pre-season games before potentially adding in some regular season contests in the future, as well.

Just after the league made its announcement on Thursday, the L.A. Kings tweeted out that they will participate in next week’s event, along with the Vancouver Canucks.

In January, hockey insider Darren Dreger reported that the Canucks and Kings were likely to play NHL pre-season games in China this upcoming September.

Last July, members of the Boston Bruins visited China, specifically Beijing and Shanghai, to host hockey clinics in those cities.

Beijing will also host the 2022 Winter Olympics.