(SportsNetwork.com) - While returning to the playoffs for the first time in five years was a big step forward last season for the Minnesota Wild, a loss in the conference finals wasn't good enough for the Los Angeles Kings.
The Kings and Wild both look to take a step forward on Thursday night as they open their 2013-14 campaign in Minnesota.
Los Angeles entered the lockout-shortened campaign off its first ever Stanley Cup championship and stretched its string of postseason appearances to four straight after a second-place finish in the Pacific Division. That did put the Kings on the road to begin the playoffs and they knocked off the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks in six and seven games, respectively, before falling to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals.
The Kings bowed out with a double-overtime loss in Game 5.
"Quite honest, our regular season last year was a better season than the team that won the Stanley Cup. So it means our young guys are getting better. Our nucleus is getting better," Kings head coach Darryl Sutter told Lakingsinsider.com.
Not surprisingly, Los Angeles returns a bulk of its roster from last season. It is led up front by leading scorer from a season ago Anze Kopitar (42) as well as leading goal-scorer Jeff Carter, who had 26 goals in 48 games.
Justin Williams, Mike Richards and captain Dustin Brown are also key forwards who return, though Brown was slowed in the preseason by a hamstring injury suffered on the first day of training camp. He is expected to play tonight, but could see a reduced role until he gets into game shape.
The Kings have a solid defensive grouping led by Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov and are expected to have Willie Mitchell available after he missed all of last season due to a knee injury.
However, blueliners Jake Muzzin (sprained knee) and Robyn Regehr (elbow surgery) are questionable.
Former Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick is a big strength to the Kings' defense and went 18-13-4 with a 2.45 goals against average and .902 save percentage. He posted a 1.86 GAA, .934 save percentage and three shutouts in last season's playoffs.
Quick should get the start tonight for the Kings, who play six of their first eight on the road. That includes Thursday's tough test at the Xcel Energy Center, where the Wild have never lost a home opener. They have won 11 straight since a tie in their first ever home opener in the building on Oct. 11, 2000.
The Wild showed a lot of improvement a season ago after breaking the bank to sign forward Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter to massive deals, earning the eighth seed in the postseason for their first playoff berth since 2008.
Minnesota did lose in five games to Chicago in the opening round, held to a pair of goals or less in all four losses.
The Wild had just four players reach double-digit figures in goals last year, led by Parise's 18. Minnesota was tied for 22nd with 2.46 goals per game, negating a solid defense that finished in a tie for 15th with 2.60 goals allowed per game.
The club shook things up by trading the physical Cal Clutterbuck and a draft pick to the New York Islanders for 21-year-old Swiss Nino Niederreiter, the fifth overall pick of the 2010 draft.
"I think the biggest thing for us is we want to get better offensively," said Wild head coach Mike Yeo. "That's been well documented. We've talked about it an awful lot, but our bread and butter still has to be that we have to be a great defensive team. That challenge for us is to build on that offensive part without taking away from the defensive part."
The Wild also added a pair of veterans, signing forward Matt Cooke and defenseman Keith Ballard.
Minnesota plays four of its first five at home and returns Niklas Backstrom in net for his eighth season. The 35-year-old was 24-15-3 with a 2.48 GAA and .909 save percentage in 42 games a season ago, but was unable to play versus Chicago in the postseason after suffering an injury during warmups prior to Game 1.
The Wild won two of three over the Kings a season ago, with both victories coming in Minnesota.