This guy with the funny stick and big pads is getting good again.

This guy with the funny stick and big pads is getting good again.

For much of the year the Los Angeles Kings, reigning Stanley Cup champions though they may be, have languished in relative mediocrity. Anaheim jumped out to such a big lead in the Pacific that their neighbors never really got a chance to stake a claim to the tops division, and even if they wanted to, they never really played well enough to warrant it.

It’s looking more and more, though, like the Kings are going to come a lot closer to the Ducks than anyone had a reason to believe even a few weeks ago, having overcome a rather bizarre handicap.

Jonathan Quick — who, if Sergei Bobrovsky is becoming a clearer Hart contender as the Blue Jackets keep winning, should have won that award last season instead of Evgeni Malkin as well as the Vezina taken by Henrik Lundqvist — has for most of the season been playing like absolute garbage. His stats stand at pathetic marks of 2.44/.901, with an even-strength save percentage of .908. The save percentages are actually worse than Ondrej Pavelec’s numbers, and it’s important to remember that Pavelec is terrible.

Quick’s inability to play anything like a goaltender who posted a sub-2 GAA and won a Conn Smythe less than a year ago is why batterymate Jonathan Bernier has gotten almost as many run-outs in this abbreviated season as he did in 82 last year, including last night’s appearance.

But opponents looking at Quick’s numbers this year, or those who haven’t played him lately, are likely to learn to their dismay that last year’s best-goalie-in-the-league is starting to play like it now as well. After posting abysmal, near-Kiprusoffian numbers in March (2.64/.881 in 13 appearances), April has gone better. Much better.

Quick has been exceptional in his last few games. Giving up five goals on 31 shots in a loss to Dallas, all five coming at even strength, he has been very much himself, allowing just nine goals in five games, all of which the Kings took points from, and only one of which was an overtime loss (and that, hardly his fault, he gave up two on 35). Just as no one outside LA really talked about how monumental his struggles were  earlier this season, no one is now talking about this remarkable return to form.

Perhaps it’s because we expect a certain level of excellence from him, but it’s not as though his failure to live up to that did much to catch attention. The, “What’s Wrong With Jonathan Quick?” thinkpieces were hardly in evidence over the course of the year the way they were for, say, Alex Ovechkin when he struggled for the first half of the season, and I would’ve thought this would at least get a few sighs of relief outside his market. But no, and there’s no explanation for it: Overall, he’s on 2.19/.917 this month, taking down a 5-2-1 record and doing a lot more to solidify his team’s potential claim to the West’s final home playoff spot, even despite last night’s loss to Minnesota and San Jose’s win over Dallas.

And that part is probably going to be extremely important. How about this: Quick is just 5-8-3 away from Staples Center this year. His GAA in those games is 3.12. His save percentage .889. He cuts the former nearly in half at home, and adds close to 30 points to the latter. The Kings have lost just four home games in regulation with him in net.

In much the same way that the Kings kind of bumbled along for the majority of last season because they just couldn’t score goals, goaltending (or perhaps the defense in front of them) was what held the team back from true greatness this year. The difference between the attack that barely earned them eighth place last year was among the league’s worst, and the defense this time around was just enough to hold them out of a division title, and that’s an important distinction.

They were a buzzsaw last year well before the playoffs started going 12-5-2 in their last 19 games of the season, then losing only four times on their way to the Cup itself, and that was with the team having sorted out a calamitous problem. Now their only problem — a relatively minor one at that — could be enough to make them very competitive despite crouching in the weeds for most of the year. While no one is going to make the mistake of counting out the Blackhawks’ chances of coming out of the West until they actually give anyone a reason to do so, these Kings, healthy and growing more powerful, might prove their biggest challengers. More than the Ducks, who only recently snapped a four-game losing streak because they got to play the Oilers twice. More than the Canucks, who have myriad injury problems lingering.

San Jose better pray the Kings stumble in their last road game of the season at Detroit tonight. Otherwise they’re going to lock up the No. 4 seed and anyone who draws them is going to be in tough to put them out for the summer. You sure as hell don’t want to be playing Jonathan Quick in the playoffs.