|Surprising Avalanche host Kings|
No one is surprised the Los Angeles Kings are playing in a game with playoff implications this late in the season. After all, they have won two Stanley Cups in the last six years and have a talented, experienced lineup.
What is surprising, especially after last season, is the team they're battling for playoff positioning is the Colorado Avalanche. No one thought after Colorado finished last in the NHL with 48 points in 2016-17 that it would make such a significant turnaround. But the Avalanche have, and with nine games to go they are sitting in the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference heading into Thursday's home game against the Kings.
Los Angeles (40-27-7) trails Colorado by one point and Anaheim by a point for third place in the Pacific Division after the Ducks' 4-0 victory in Calgary on Wednesday. The Kings are coming off a tough back-to-back Monday and Tuesday in Minnesota and Winnipeg but managed to get three out of a possible four points.
They were outplayed by the Jets in a 2-1 loss but got the game to overtime on the play of goaltender Jack Campbell.
"Jack played fantastic," captain Anze Kopitar told The Los Angeles Times after the loss. "He gave us a chance to win, obviously, more than just a chance to win. I mean, he stood on his head that second period. I'm sure it wasn't easy on him with all the penalty kills that we had and they had us in our zone quite a bit, so he played outstanding."
The Kings aren't the only team thankful for strong goaltending. Semyon Varlamov has played in 18 straight games -- 16 starts -- and has stolen points for the resurgent Avalanche. He kept them in the game early against Chicago on Tuesday before his teammates pulled away in a 5-1 victory.
That improved Colorado's record to 8-1-3 in the last 12 games and has them in strong position to make the playoffs for the first time in four years.
"If there's any time to get hot, it's right now," rookie forward Alex Kerfoot, who had two goals in the win, said after Tuesday's game. "The way that our conference is, the way that our division is, every game is huge. We just have to take it like every game we're playing is the biggest game of the year."
Colorado (40-25-8) has leaned heavily on its top line of MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. MacKinnon, with 38 goals and 53 assists, is second in the league in scoring despite missing eight games with a shoulder injury.
MacKinnon has a 13-game point streak going, including two assists in Tuesday's win that gave him 13 goals and 13 assists during the run.
Colorado won despite not having second-line center Carl Soderberg available. He missed the game due to illness. The Avalanche didn't practice Wednesday so there was no update on his availability for Thursday.
Los Angeles center Trevor Lewis was out of the lineup Tuesday with what the team classified as an upper-body injury. He was hurt in Monday's win in Minnesota and there was no timeline given for his return.
"In terms of a timeline, I don't know yet," coach John Stevens told The L.A. Times. "I wouldn't say it's long, long-term."