Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown have the Kings back on top

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After missing the playoffs in two of the past three seasons and getting bounced in the first round in the one year they did make the playoffs it seemed as if the Los Angeles Kings’ run as one of the NHL’s elite teams was coming to an end.

They were still posting consistently great possession numbers and were a strong defensive team, but the offense was a mess and the roster seemed to lack any sort of quality depth. Even worse, the talented players that were on the roster were starting to get older and had shown signs of slowing down.

Dustin Brown‘s career had seen him produce like a third-liner, while Anze Kopitar, one of the best two-way players in the NHL and the foundation of two Stanley Cup winning teams in Los Angeles, was coming off  worst offensive season of his career. It was hard to envision (at least for me) a scenario where the Kings could bounce back in a meaningful way without making any significant changes to a roster that seemed to be losing its luster and seemed to be short on talent outside of a very select group of players.

It turns out the scenario that could spark a change was pretty simple: Kopitar and Brown returning to being elite offensive players.

That is exactly what has happened so far for the Kings this season.

Entering play on Monday Kopitar is averaging more than a point-per game (31 points in 28 games), is in the top-10 in scoring, and is still playing a dominant two-way game in all situations. His 22 minutes of ice-time per game are second among all forwards (trailing only Aleksander Barkov).

In hindsight, we should have seen his bounce back season coming.

A lot of his decline last season can be attributed to the fact that he was absolutely crushed by percentages last season.

His shooting percentage dropped all the way down to 8 percent, not only a career low but also the first time in his career he shot below 10 percent in a single season.

Had he shot at his career average of 12 percent it would have been an additional six or seven goals to his total, and that doesn’t even take into account the six games he missed. With just slightly better shooting luck he could have easily been a 20-goal scorer. When an elite player like Kopitar goes through a season where they are hurt almost entirely by percentages they are usually a great candidate for a bounce back the following year.

Players that have that sort of track record don’t just suddenly lose their ability to score. Hockey can be a cruel game sometimes in that no matter what a player does or how well they play the puck sometimes just doesn’t go in the net.

This season Kopitar has experienced the percentage bounce back and it has him back to being the player he’s always been.

The far bigger surprise has been Brown’s return to glory.

For the past four years he had the look of a player that was, quite simply, finished as a top-six offensive player in the NHL. He was entering his age 33 season and had not topped 36 points in any of the previous four years. Only once during that stretch did he record more than 28 points.

So far this season he has already scored as many goals in 28 games (11) as he did in three of his previous four seasons and has already had a hand in 23 Kings goals.

He has probably been a little fortunate from a shooting percentage standpoint (14 percent this season after being under eight percent in the previous four years … and sometimes around five percent) but you can not take away what he has already done. And right now he and Kopitar are driving the Kings’ offense in a huge way, especially as Jeff Carter remains sidelined.

The interesting thing about this season for the Kings is that this is a team that has finished higher than 20th in goals scored just twice in the past six years, and only once higher than 14th.

As of Monday they are eighth in the NHL, and while Kopitar and Brown have seen a significant jump in their personal shooting percentages, the Kings as a team aren’t really benefitting from an unsustainable shooting percentage. As a team they are right in the middle of the pack across the league.

It is worth asking how much of an impact the coaching change from Darryl Sutter to John Stevens has had on the offense.

Under Sutter the Kings were a defense-first team built around suffocating and suppressing offense. So much so that it took away from their own offense. Almost immediately after the team named Stevens the new coach the message was about improving the team’s offense. Over the summer Stevens and general manager Rob Blake talked about how the Kings were near the bottom of the league in controlled zone entries and getting shots from the middle of the ice and how they wanted to improve all of those areas.

Given how little the roster has changed and how much the results have changed from one year to the next it seems at least possible that the Kings have succeeded in a lot of those areas.

It seems to have helped two of their top players return to form, which has helped the team start to look like a contender again.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

LA Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers

Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
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LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Kings put goaltender Cal Petersen on waivers, a surprising move for a player once considered the successor in net to two-time Stanley Cup winner Jonathan Quick.

Petersen, 28, went on waivers the day after allowing four goals on 16 shots in relief of Quick during a 9-8 overtime loss to the Seattle Kraken. Quick was pulled after giving up five goals on 14 shots.

Only one NHL goalie has a save percentage lower than Petersen’s .868 this season, Elvis Merzlikins of the Columbus Blue Jackets with .864. Petersen is 5-3-2 in 10 games with a 3.75 goals-against average in his third full season with the Kings and fifth overall.

L.A. signed Petersen to a three-year, $15 million contract in September 2021, and he figured to take the starting job from Quick, who turns 37 in January and is set to be a free agent after the season. Petersen has two years left on that deal after this one at an annual salary cap hit of $5 million.

Penguins’ Kris Letang out indefinitely after 2nd stroke

Kris Letang Penguins
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PITTSBURGH — Kris Letang plays hockey with a grace and inexhaustible fluidity seemingly impervious to the rigors of spending nearly half his life in the NHL.

For the second time in less than a decade, however, a major health scare has brought Letang’s career to a halt.

The 35-year-old Letang is out indefinitely after suffering a stroke for a second time. Letang reported feeling ill and was taken to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

While general manager Ron Hextall said Wednesday this stroke doesn’t appear to be as serious as the one Letang sustained in 2014, the Penguins will have to find a way forward at least in the short term without one of their franchise pillars.

“I am fortunate to know my body well enough to recognize when something isn’t right,” Letang said in a release. “While it is difficult to navigate this issue publicly, I am hopeful it can raise awareness. … I am optimistic that I will be back on the ice soon.”

The three-time Stanley Cup champion missed more than two months in 2014 after a stroke, which doctors determined was caused by a small hole in the wall of his heart. He spent Monday feeling off and told team trainers he was dealing with what Hextall described as a migraine headache.

Penguins team physician Dr. Dhamesh Vyas recommended Letang go to the hospital, where tests confirmed the stroke.

“He didn’t know (he had a stroke),” Hextall said. “He just knew something wasn’t right.”

Letang is continuing to undergo tests but felt well enough on Tuesday to be at the arena for Pittsburgh’s 3-2 overtime loss to Carolina. He spent the second period chatting with Hextall then addressed his teammates in the locker room afterward in an effort to help allay their concerns.

“I think it was important for Kris to be there because his teammates got to see him in good spirits and that he’s doing well,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said.

Sullivan added initial test results on Letang have been “very encouraging.” Letang will continue to undergo testing throughout the week, though he felt good enough in the aftermath to ask Sullivan and Hextall if he could skate, an activity that is off the table for now.

Hextall said he “couldn’t even guess” how long the Penguins may be without the married father of two, adding hockey is low on the team’s list of concerns about a player who, along with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, has helped the franchise to three Stanley Cups during his 17-year career.

“First and foremost this is about the person and I told Tanger about that last night,” Hextall said. “This is Kris Letang, the father and family guy, the Pittsburgh Penguins, that’s second.”

Letang, a six-time All-Star, has been one of the most durable players in the NHL. His 662 career points (145 goals, 517 assists) are a franchise record for a defenseman. He’s averaged well over 24 minutes of playing time over the course of his career, a number that’s ticked above 25 minutes per game seven times in eight-plus seasons since he returned from the initial stroke.

The Penguins felt so confident in Letang’s durability that they signed him to a six-year contract over the summer rather than let him test free agency for the first time.

“The level of hockey he’s played for as long as he’s played is absolutely incredible,” Hextall said. “The level he’s continued to play at at his age, the type of shape he’s in … he’s a warrior.”

Letang has one goal and 11 assists in 21 games so far this season for Pittsburgh, which hosts Vegas on Thursday night. The Penguins are pretty deep along the blue line, but Sullivan knows he can’t try to replace Letang with any one player.

“It’s not anything we haven’t been faced with in the past and the reality is we have what we have, and we’ll figure it out,” Sullivan said, adding “it’ll be by committee, as it usually is when you replace a player of that stature.”

Ovechkin tops Gretzky for most road goals, Capitals beat Canucks

Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Ovechkin scored twice, passing Wayne Gretzky for the most road goals in NHL history, and the Washington Capitals beat the Vancouver Canucks 5-1 on Tuesday night.

Ovechkin has scored 403 of his 793 career goals away from home. Gretzky holds the overall record with 894.

“It’s always nice when you beat the Great One,” Ovechkin said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of milestone it is. It’s history.”

Anthony Mantha added a goal and an assist for the Capitals (10-11-3). John Carlson and Martin Fehervary also scored, and Darcy Kuemper stopped 31 shots.

Nils Hoglander scored for the Canucks (9-11-3), who had won three in a row. Spencer Martin made 23 saves.

“Spencer’s been great for us. He’s probably a bit like the other players tonight. They weren’t ready to play and it showed on the scoreboard,” Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau said.

The 37-year-old Ovechkin nearly netted a hat trick when Vancouver pulled Martin for an extra skater with just over six minutes left, but his rocket of a shot skimmed the outside of the post.

“I think he has 13 goals this year and I want to say like eight or nine have been like a new record. So it’s been cool,” Washington center Dylan Strome said. “Any time you pass Wayne Gretzky in anything, it deserves a standing ovation, which he got.”

Fehervary was the one who sealed it, flipping the puck high into the Canucks zone and into the empty net at 15:57 of the third period.

Ovechkin topped Gretzky 11:52 into the first, firing a one-timer from the left circle past Martin to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead with his 13th goal of the season.

“On his second goal, it looks like, `Oh, maybe (Martin) should have had it.’ But I’ve seen (Ovechkin) score 100 goals like that,” said Boudreau, who coached the Capitals from 2007-11. “He’s got a shot that finds its way in.”

The star forward from Russia got his first of the night 5:35 in, taking the puck off the stick of Vancouver defenseman Quinn Hughes near the net and batting in a quick shot.

“It could have been 6-1 after the first period, quite frankly, with the amount of chances (Washington) had,” Boudreau said.

It was Ovechkin’s 135th game-opening goal, tying Jaromir Jagr for the most in NHL history.

“(Ovechkin) was really good in the first and I thought we were really good in the first so it was nice to get out and get a jump like that,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “He certainly led. We knew we needed to have a good first period, have a good game, and you need your best players to do that.”

Carlson scored the lone goal of the second, chipping in a loose puck from the low hash marks at 18:47 to give Washington a 4-1 cushion.

“It’s frustrating. Because when you lose games, it should never be about your compete level and battle level,” Canucks center J.T. Miller said. “It’s frustrating because they didn’t out-skill us today, they didn’t out-system us. They literally just outbattled us and created their own chances.”

NOTES: Washington’s Lars Eller got his 200th career assist. … Miller had an assist, extending his point streak to nine games (four goals, seven assists). … The Capitals swept the two-game season series. … Vancouver assigned winger Vasily Podkolzin and defenseman Jack Rathbone to the Abbotsford Canucks on Monday, then recalled forward Phillip Di Giuseppe from the American Hockey League club on Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Washington: At Seattle on Thursday in the second of a five-game trip.

Vancouver: Host Florida on Thursday in the second of a four-game homestand.

Deal for Coyotes’ proposed arena approved by Tempe council

David Kirouac-USA TODAY Sports
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TEMPE, Ariz. — The Tempe City Council has unanimously approved a proposal for a new Arizona Coyotes arena and entertainment district, clearing the way for a public vote on the project next year.

The City Council approved the proposal 7-0 after a lengthy meeting that included NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

The $2.1 billion project would include a 16,000-seat arena, practice rink, 1,600 apartments, two hotels and a theater. Approval of the project was the final step before it goes to referendum on May 16.

The team is currently playing at Arizona State’s 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, by far the NHL’s smallest arena.

The Coyotes have been searching for a permanent home since the city of Glendale pulled out of a multimillion-dollar lease at Gila River Arena. Arizona had been playing on an annual lease until Glendale said it would not be renewed for the 2022-23 season.