Sports

Top Shelf: Champs recovering from Cup hangover

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Last spring, the Los Angeles Kings proved they are at their most dangerous with their backs against the wall.

Only a few weeks ago, it seemed like it may be time to start counting the Kings out of the Western Conference playoff race. Presently, the reigning Stanley Cup champs are looking like the team that has won it all in two of the last three seasons.

Los Angeles has rattled off five straight wins to move within two points of a playoff spot and it would surprise few people if the recent run is only the beginning of a push to the postseason.

As of Tuesday morning, only two points separate the Kings from the San Jose Sharks, the club holding onto the West's final wild card berth. Since the Sharks couldn't manage to beat the Kings in the first round of the 2014 playoffs despite jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the series, it's safe to say San Jose's playoff status is in serious jeopardy.

And it's not just the Sharks who should be looking over their shoulders to check on the Kings. Calgary and Vancouver sit only three points in front of L.A. in a tie for second place in the Pacific Division.

It wasn't so long ago when Darryl Sutter's club seemed incapable of beating anybody. The Kings managed only three wins over a 15-game stretch (3-7-5) from late-December until the beginning of February before coming to life over the last few weeks.

It's hard to figure out what has changed recently to improve L.A.'s fortunes. The Kings weren't getting blown out during the recent rough patch and they haven't dominated the opposition en route to winning their last five games.

The transformation has been subtle, but star centerman Anze Kopitar believes at least part of the recent hot streak is due to L.A. having to play with its backs against the wall. Some teams collapse under the pressure, while the Kings seem to need some stress in order to realize their full potential.

"I just think that things are coming together for us," Kopitar said after his team's most recent win, a 3-2 home decision over Tampa Bay on Monday.

"Obviously, we're playing with more desperation as we should've before, but it seems like now it's clicking for us."

Kopitar also said his team is getting the bounces now after having a run of bad luck for a large part of the season.

Another possible reason for L.A.'s recent success isn't going to be discussed by the team out of respect for the man it implicates. Still, it's hard not to notice how the Kings began getting better results once it made the difficult decision of placing struggling forward Mike Richards on waivers and ultimately sending him to the team's American Hockey League affiliate in Manchester, New Hampshire.

All told, the Kings have won six of nine games since Richards has been out of the lineup. It could be a simple case of addition by subtraction or maybe it was a wake-up call to the rest of the roster.

General manager Dean Lombardi was mostly trying to create some salary cap space with the Richards move, but at the same time it's possible he sent a strong message to the rest of the club. That a guy like Richards, who meant so much to L.A.'s recent championship runs, could find himself on the outside looking in stressed how little past success means to the Kings.

By waiving Richards, Lombardi showed everyone will be held accountable if they aren't playing up to their ability. Just because Richards was a key ingredient to the winning formula in 2012 and '14 doesn't mean he'll get a free pass in the here and now.

Of course, there's always the chance what we have witnessed in recent weeks is a mirage. For their part, the Kings certainly aren't taking the renaissance for granted. They know another long funk at this stage of the season could derail their postseason quest.

However, it's more likely L.A. will continue its ascent up the conference playoff ladder. If we've learned anything about the Kings over the last several seasons, it's that once they get in a groove and start playing with confidence, it can be nearly impossible to stop them.

"We've just got to keep on going," Kopitar said. "We're still in a hole, we know that. We've got to keep on playing and keep getting the two points."