DAN GELSTON,AP Sports Writer
They made up three teams of the NHL’s version of the final four last season.
This season, the Los Angeles Kings, New York Rangers and Phoenix Coyotes are playing like teams that won’t get to enjoy the final round of the conference playoffs. All three teams have failed to build on their postseason runs of a year ago — and sky-high preseason expectations. The Kings, the defending Stanley Cup champions, and the Rangers wouldn’t even make the playoffs at this rate. And amid complicated ownership issues, the Coyotes are just hanging on.
In this lockout-shortened season, where slow starts can prove costly, all three are in a rush to recapture what made them so special last May.
This trio of underachievers has company when it comes to slow-starting teams, however. The Minnesota Wild, Philadelphia Flyers, Washington Capitals, and Detroit Red Wings are all among a group lacking that extra spark. And just like that, folks, 20 percent of the season is already in the books.
But it’s the Kings, Coyotes and Rangers that are the most puzzling. They should all have that fire to get back to where they were. After all, the Eastern Conference-champion New Jersey Devils — the other team from the 2012 final four — are fourth in the East and are only point behind Pittsburgh for the top spot in the Atlantic Division entering Wednesday’s games.
So it’s not like there has to be a postseason hangover. But whatever the Devils (5-1-3) have right now, the Rangers (4-5), Kings (3-3-2) and Coyotes (4-4-2) simply don’t.
Let’s start in New York.
The Rangers can probably forget about earning the top seed in the conference for the second straight season. New York has little depth and no scoring punch outside of the top line. The Rangers frontloaded that first line — Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Rick Nash — and that’s worked. They’ve combined for nine goals and 23 points. It’s the rest of the team that’s struggled. All the young players who were supposed to be dynamite on the second line, like Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider, have been anything but. That’s the price the Rangers have paid for dealing several “depth” players like they did to get Nash. The Rangers have scored 20 goals, the lowest total in the East.
Goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can’t save ’em all for New York.
“We have some guys that are really playing hard,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said, “and we’ve got some guys that look scared and tentative.”
Kreider scored the only goal for the Rangers in a 3-1 loss to New Jersey on Tuesday night. Tortorella said changes could be coming, notably on the special teams unit where the Rangers are an abysmal 3 for 35 on the power play. The Rangers went 0 for 5 on the power play against the Devils and New York has allowed a power-play goal in eight straight games. Time is growing short for the Rangers to pick up their special teams play.
“I’m not waiting,” Tortorella said. “We have some guys that are very tentative, very careful. We don’t play careful hockey.”
Out in the desert, essentially the same roster that won the Pacific Division has been unable to ride much of a hot streak.
They hit a rough patch off the ice when Greg Jamison was unable to pull together the funds and investors he needed to purchase the team before a deadline with the city of Glendale expired.
The Coyotes, with their long-term future now uncertain, are slowly turning around their season and have points in their last five games.
“I think we’re just getting a rhythm,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney told the team’s website. “You hate to make any excuses, but we played 10 games in 17 nights without basically any camp. The first five, six were a whirlwind. We were trying to sort ourselves out.”
Goalie Mike Smith has rounded into form and stopped 38 of 39 shots to win his last two starts entering Wednesday night’s game at Chicago. The injury-riddled team is getting healthy and depth on all four lines has helped keep them stay afloat.
The Kings may be the most disappointing of them all. The defending champs are in the midst of a rugged schedule of playing eight of nine games on the road. They hope they can ride out the rough patch without falling much more behind, before opening a stretch of five straight home games and 10 of 12 overall starting March 4. Like the Rangers, the Kings simply can’t score. Toss out Jeff Carter’s four goals, and the Kings only have 15 this season.
Mike Richards only has one goal and the Kings also are struggling on the power play. Through Tuesday, Los Angeles was 13th in the Western Conference with eight points, only two more than the last-place Calgary Flames.
“It’s the time where we have to put together a string of wins,” Richards said, “and more or less build confidence.”
Where the teams finish, of course, doesn’t really matter, as long as they make the playoffs. That’s the way hockey is these days. The Kings were the No. 8 seed last season, after all, and the Devils were No. 6 in the East. The Flyers, back in 2010, knocked out the Rangers for a playoff spot on the last day of the 2010 season, then went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals as a No. 7 seed.
So, if you make it in, there’s always a chance things can turn. And there’s certainly enough talent on all three teams to do so.
But something needs to change soon, or they’ll continue to be on the outside looking in.
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