NHL on NBCSN: Kings’ big three keeping them in playoff hunt

NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Sunday’s matchup between the Los Angeles Kings and Colorado Avalanche. Kings-Avalanche stream coverage begins at 5:15 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

When it comes to long-term outlook and potential, the Kings should be well positioned for a lengthy run of success over the next decade. While the current team may not be a contender as presently constructed, the combination of an elite farm system (led by Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte, and Arthur Kaliyev) and a favorable salary cap situation is enough to give LA fans hope that a Stanley Cup contender could be something that is ahead for them in the not too distant future.

But just because the future is something to be excited about, and just because the recent past has been a struggle, does not mean it is time to entirely abandon the present.

Since winning the 2013-14 Stanley Cup, the Kings have qualified for the playoffs just two times in six years with zero playoff series wins. The supporting cast around their core players weakened, while the stars themselves have slowed down over the past few years as they get deeper into their 30s. But the trio of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Drew Doughty has played well enough this season to keep the Kings surprisingly in the playoff hunt.

They enter Sunday’s game against the Avalanche in fifth place in the West Division and four points out of a playoff spot.

A win against Colorado could cut that deficit to just two points.

[AVS-KINGS PRE-GAME COVERAGE BEGINS AT 5:15 P.M. – NBCSN]

Given the expectations for the Kings at the start of the season just being in the hunt at the halfway point is a sign of progress.

This is, after all, a team that has finished in the bottom-four of the league in standings in each of the past two seasons. Given that the offseason was mostly quiet when it comes to the NHL roster, it was widely expected that the results this season would remain the same. Especially as Kopitar, Brown, Doughty, Jeff Carter, and Jonathan Quick continued to slow down.

Then something wild happened: The first three players mentioned found the fountain of youth and started to play at a level that is closer to their championship level form.

As of Sunday, Kopitar is having the best offensive season of his career with 31 points in 26 games, while playing the strong two-way game that made him such an impact player during the Kings’ Cup years. When he is on the ice during 5-on-5 play the Kings are outscoring teams by an 18-9 margin. His underlying possession numbers are not quite as dominant as they were at his peak, but he is still playing at an exceptionally high level on both sides of the puck.

But that is probably not a huge shock given how strong his play has remained the past few years.

The current play of Brown and Doughty should be a little more surprising.

Let’s start with Brown. He has already scored 13 goals in the Kings’ first 26 games this season and has been one of the most efficient goal scorers in the entire league. That has him on a better than 20-goal pace even in a 56-game season. Keep in mind he has scored more than 15 goals just four times over the past eight seasons, while topping 18 goals just twice during that stretch. That production has been a major surprise this season and has helped carry the Kings’ offense.

[Your 2020-21 NHL On NBC TV Schedule]

Then there is Doughty, whose career seemed to hit a wall the past two seasons both offensively and defensively. To the point where it looked like the remainder of his contract was going to become an albatross on the Kings’ salary cap situation. The 2020-21 season has instead been a resurgent one for him as his performance has improved dramatically across the board. His offensive production has been better, his ability to drive possession has improved relative to his teammates, and his defensive game has been closer to what we have seen from him throughout his career. For the first time in three years he is actually playing like a top-pairing defender.

In the short-term the Kings still have some flaws that are going to make clinching a playoff spot a challenge. Their depth beyond the big-three is not quite where it needs to be, and while Kopitar, Brown, and Doughty have been great, the other big member of the core (Quick) has again struggled and been the lesser of their goalies (behind Cal Petersen) when he has been healthy this season. That is something that is going to have to change.

This is a very top-heavy division with a trio of Cup contenders (Vegas, Colorado, and St. Louis) at the top and a much improved Minnesota team making a move. That is going to present a challenge in the second half.  But the Kings have managed to stay in the race and at least give themselves a shot at keeping things interesting in what seemed to be another lost, rebuilding season. The future is as bright as any other team in the league given the young talent and prospect pool in the organization. But the veterans are still keeping things interesting in the present.

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.

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    Predators-Avalanche postponed due to water main break

    Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports
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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Friday’s game between the Nashville Predators and the Colorado Avalanche has been postponed because of a water main break that has soaked the downtown arena.

    The NHL said the water main break has “significantly impacted the event level” of Bridgestone Arena. Team locker rooms and the ice surface are on the event level.

    Predators President and CEO Sean Henry told reporters that the water in the event level ranged from 3 inches to 3 feet.

    “We’re assessing it right now. We’re remediating it,” Henry said. “The good thing is, the water got shut off, the city responded in a pretty fast manner. I don’t think anyone is ready for things like this the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

    Video posted by a WTVF-TV reporter shows the water puddled up on the main floor’s concourse area and the team store.

    The team was forced to close the store until further notice, pointing shoppers online for Black Friday specials.

    A makeup date for the  game will be announced later.

    Also, a decision on whether to postpone the Predators’ home game against the Columbus Blue Jackets will be made later.

    The water issue also resulted in a switch to a different venue in Nashville for a college hockey game between Northeastern and Western Michigan. They had been scheduled to play at Bridgestone Arena, a game that was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.

    Rangers trade Ryan Reaves to Wild for 5th-round pick in 2025

    Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports
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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — The New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

    Reaves had been a healthy scratch for eight of the past 12 games for the Rangers. He gives struggling Minnesota some extra muscle and a veteran presence.

    The 35-year-old is signed through only the rest of this season at a $1.75 million salary cap hit. He has no points and 12 penalty minutes in 12 games of his second season with New York.

    Reaves has played in 869 NHL regular-season and playoff games for the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Rangers. He was with the Golden Knights during their inaugural season in 2017-18 when the reached the Stanley Cup Final.

    Toronto’s Morgan Rielly placed on long-term injured reserve

    Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
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    TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs placed defenseman Morgan Rielly on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury.

    Rielly was hurt in a collision with with New York forward Kyle Palmieri early in the third period of Toronto’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders at home.

    Rielly has no goals and 16 assists in 20 games this season and is averaging 23 minutes of ice time.

    Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following practice that the 28-year-old Rielly doesn’t need surgery, adding there’s no firm timeline for his return beyond the minimum 24 days and 10 games required for going on long-term injured reserve.

    Toronto’s defense is also missing Jake Muzzin with a neck injury and T.J. Brodie with an injured oblique.

    Carrier, Pietrangelo rally Golden Knights past Canucks 5-4

    Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Alex Pietrangelo scored the tiebreaking goal in the third period and had two assists as the Vegas Golden Knights rallied past the Vancouver Canucks 5-4 on Monday night.

    William Carrier scored twice and Mark Stone had a goal and an assist for the Golden Knights (15-4-1), who overcame a 4-2 deficit in the third. Reilly Smith also scored, while Jack Eichel and Alec Martinez each had two assists.

    Logan Thompson made 25 saves for Vegas, which had a go-ahead goal wiped out in the third but still kept pushing.

    “I don’t think that’s really how we drew it up,” Pietrangelo said. “A lot of emotions. Obviously we score and then it gets taken back. But I’ll tell you what, it’s not easy to win on the road and you’ve got to give credit to our group – we were resilient no matter what happened.”

    Vancouver (6-10-3) got a goal and an assist from Andrei Kuzmenko. Bo Horvat, Luke Schenn and Elias Pettersson also scored, and Quinn Hughes had two assists.

    Thatcher Demko stopped 33 shots for the Canucks, who gave up a multi-goal lead in a loss for the seventh time this season.

    “Inexcusable,” defenseman Luke Schenn said.

    “That’s nothing to do with systems or what the coaches are telling us. That comes down to battle and compete and, we’re getting outmuscled and outbattled in front of the net and in the blue paint,” he added. “Everyone just needs to be better in front of (Demko) there and that’s where games are won and lost.”

    Vegas appeared to take the lead midway through the third period, but the goal was disallowed because of a bizarre bounce.

    A clearing attempt by the Canucks hit the lens of a camera sticking through one of the media holes in the glass, knocking a piece of it onto the ice. Play continued at that end and Stone put the puck in the net. But after a video review, the goal was overturned and an official said the whistle should have been blown to stop play.

    About four minutes later, Pietrangelo did give the Golden Knights a 5-4 advantage when he collected a puck from Stone and sent a backhand past Demko from the low slot at 14:14.

    Vancouver scored three straight goals early in the third to go up 4-2 before Vegas roared back.

    “We let them score one, kind of changed the momentum quick and then they scored another one. So I don’t know,” Pettersson said. “We just can’t let that happen. It’s been happening way too many times this season.”

    Carrier made it 4-3 with his second of the night at 6:54, sending in a rebound from the top of the crease for his sixth of the season.

    “Once they scored one it was like, `Uh oh, here we go again.’ And we’re back on our heels and they came at us, and then they got three,” Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau said.

    Smith shoveled a puck into the Vancouver net at 8:57 to tie it.

    “We just win some pucks below their goal line and get it to the front of the net and force them to defend an area they haven’t done as good a job as they’d probably like this year there,” Vegas coach Bruce Cassidy said. “We didn’t do a very good job to start a third there, and then it snowballs a little bit. You have a little life and you get a couple more pucks to the net and a second chance.”

    ON A ROLL

    Horvat drew the Canucks even 1:47 into the third with a wrist shot from the hash marks. Vancouver’s captain has 15 goals, second-most in the NHL behind Connor McDavid (16). … Brock Boeser‘s assist on the first goal of the game extended his point streak to seven games (two goals, six assists).

    MARKING MILESTONES

    Golden Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault played his 500th regular-season NHL game. Now in his 10th season, the 31-year-old center suited up for Columbus, Tampa Bay and Florida before Vegas selected him in the 2017 expansion draft. … Vancouver defenseman Ethan Bear made his 200th regular-season appearance.

    UP NEXT

    Golden Knights: Host the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday in the opener of a three-game homestand.

    Canucks: Begin a three-game trip Wednesday at Colorado.