| LOS ANGELES
LOS ANGELES As the National Hockey League's (NHL) lockout-shortened regular season nears its final month, the Los Angeles Kings are finding a familiar rhythm that resembles their stunning playoff run of last year.
A 48-game campaign spread across four months is much more of a sprint than the usual marathon of an 82-game season over seven months, so it is no surprise to see that team that raced to the 2012 Stanley Cup title once again picking up speed.
The Kings (16-10-2) moved into fourth place in the Western Conference with 34 points following Monday's 4-0 home victory over the Phoenix Coyotes.
With that win, the defending Stanley Cup champion have now won 11 of their last 15 games, including 10 of 11 on home ice, proving once again that they reign supreme when the stakes are the highest.
"There's no margin for error. You have to be sharp every night, and be on your game every night," Anze Kopitar, who leads the Kings with 27 points, told Reuters on Monday of the critical stage of the season. "It's going to be tight, and you want take advantage of it every night."
Seizing every night was just the approach that allowed Los Angeles to storm through last year's playoffs as the eighth seed when they captured the first championship in the franchise's 45-year history while dropping just four postseason games.
That head-spinning performance planted a bullseye squarely on the Kings and the defending champions did not handle the pressure so well out of the gate.
Los Angeles opened the year just 3-5-2 and if not for some inspired play by the likes of leading goal scorer Jeff Carter and some of their young talent things could have been worse.
But the Kings are built for the finish line rather than the starting block, and it is giving them a leg up as other teams are now struggling the short rest in between games.
"The schedule is hard," said Kings coach Darryl Sutter. "Basically, the schedule is costing teams games based on how much you play your top guys, guys that are banged up. All that stuff has so much impact on everything."
An example of the grueling NHL calendar will be on display later on Tuesday when the Kings and Coyotes square off for the second consecutive evening at Staples Center.
It is the kind of sequence that must remind the Kings of playoff time and, in particular, their domination of Phoenix in last year's Western Conference Finals.
Los Angeles skated just as smoothly on Monday in their win over the Coyotes. Jonathan Quick found his stellar form in a 27-save shutout, Kopitar and Carter scored goals to extend their strong seasons and the Kings kept rolling.
Even rookie Tyler Toffoli got in on the action with his first career goal.
The 20-year-old has only been with the team for about a week and has not yet been battle tested in crucial games, but the Kings are bringing the youngster along for the ride as they ramp up for the season's final stretch.
"They've been talking to me all game, telling me little things to do," Toffoli said. "They've been incredible."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)