The Western Conference finalists from a season ago are returning from the All-Star break looking up at more teams in the standings than some might have expected.
While the Chicago Blackhawks could quickly improve on their third-place position in the Central Division, the Los Angeles Kings have dug themselves a larger hole in the Pacific.
The teams meet Wednesday night in Los Angeles, with the Kings trying to avoid their longest losing streak of the season and the Blackhawks looking to extend their regular-season dominance in the series.
Los Angeles (20-15-12) entered the break on its second four-game skid of the season, including a three-game home slide. The 0-2-2 stretch culminated with a 4-2 loss at San Jose last Wednesday.
“We’re disappointed in where we are in the standings right now,” center Anze Kopitar said. “… It’s time to play desperate coming out of the break.”
The Kings have gone 9 of 14 on the penalty kill during the skid, and Jonathan Quick has struggled for even longer, going 0-3-3 with a 3.64 goals-against average in his last seven games. Quick’s last five regular-season matchups with Chicago have resulted in a 1-4-0 record and 4.06 goals-against average.
Coach Darryl Sutter doesn’t expect the time off to have magically corrected the fifth-place team’s shortcomings.
“I think the break is same for every team,” he said. “Everybody’s got the same break … so I don’t know why it would be special to our group or special to anybody else.”
Chicago (30-15-2) has won four straight and five of six over Los Angeles in the regular season. It’s also taken three in a row and seven of eight at Staples Center, winning the first matchup of this season by a 4-1 score there Nov. 29.
Brad Richards scored twice in the November meeting, giving him nine goals and four assists in his last 10 regular-season contests against Los Angeles.
The Blackhawks entered the break with back-to-back wins, the latest a 3-2 shootout victory in Pittsburgh last Wednesday.
“Even if things aren’t going so well, we’re good at taking responsibility for it and not dragging our feet around and dwelling on what we’re not doing or what’s not going our way,” All-Star captain Jonathan Toews said. “We just find ways that we can make things better, and we showed an example of that in the last two games.”
Extending the run would certainly show continued progress. The Pittsburgh contest began a seven-game road stretch for the Blackhawks that continues with matchups against Los Angeles, Anaheim and San Jose before returning home to face three Central opponents.
Chicago’s Corey Crawford would welcome consistency on a personal level, as he’s 6-5-1 with a 2.89 GAA since returning from an eight-game absence in November and December. His last game before the leg injury was in Los Angeles, where he’s 6-1-0 with a 2.33 GAA during the regular season.
The break wasn’t without personnel moves for both teams.
The Kings put Mike Richards on waivers Monday, acknowledging the veteran center’s declining play after being a key part of the club’s two Stanley Cup championships. No team picked up Richards, who has five goals and 10 assists in 47 games but is making $7 million this season, and he was assigned to their AHL affiliate Tuesday.
The Blackhawks placed forward Kris Versteeg on long-term injured reserve because of a left hand injury suffered Jan. 1 that was originally expected to keep him out for only a month.