The captain of the Stanley Cup champions slumped with his back against a cinderblock wall, his eyes staring into space, a sore limb wrapped in plastic and ice. Dustin Brown and the Los Angeles Kings had looked so good, dominating the play, firing 47 shots on net. Brown could have had a hat trick. None of the excuses or explanations applied here – the injuries, the lockout or the hangover. The Kings had shown the kind of team they were, the kind of team they can be.
“That was probably our best 60 minutes in a long time,” Brown said.
And it still wasn’t enough. Just when they had thought their effort would be rewarded with at least a point, just when Alec Martinez had tied the game with 52.8 seconds left on Sunday, they gave up a goal with 4.5 seconds left in regulation and lost, 3-2. Jonathan Quick, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs’ most valuable player last season, lost sight of the puck for a blink and couldn’t stop it from slipping underneath him and dribbling into the net.
The defending champs entered Monday night’s game against the St. Louis Blues with a 3-5-2 record. The Kings had a minus-9 goal differential. They were last in the Pacific Division and second-to-last in the Western Conference. Meanwhile, the guys they beat in the Cup final, the New Jersey Devils, were atop the East at 8-1-3 after losing captain Zach Parise in free agency.
Quick had offseason back surgery, and though he seems healthy, he doesn’t seem sharp. His save percentage was .891.
The defense is missing two key pieces: Matt Greene (back), an emotional leader, and Willie Mitchell (knee), who averaged the second-most minutes on the team last season. That puts even more pressure on workhorse Drew Doughty, who was already minus-10, and puts others in higher roles than they were expected to play. It keeps the puck in the defensive end too much.
The stars aren’t scoring: Anze Kopitar was tied for the team lead in points with Kyle Clifford, and they each had only six. Mike Richards had one goal, while Doughty and Simon Gagne had none. Jeff Carter had no assists.
General manager Dean Lombardi and coach Darryl Sutter are searching for answers. Lombardi traded for Keaton Ellerby to bolster the defense last week. He spoke one-on-one with a couple of his stars after Sunday’s game – chatting with Brown in the dressing room, walking out of the room and down the hall with Kopitar. Sutter has cajoled privately and publicly, like telling reporters his young defensemen – Martinez, Jake Muzzin and Davis Drewiske – need to be “a lot better.” He has shuffled his lines. “Trying to get some more out of the top guys, to be quite honest,” he said.
Considering what the Kings did last season, there is no reason to panic. They started so slowly that Lombardi brought Sutter off his Alberta farm to replace Terry Murray. They made the playoffs as an eighth seed and then went on an incredible 16-4 run in the playoffs to win the Cup.
After a 3-0 loss to the Nashville Predators last week, winger Justin Williams told the Los Angeles Times: “There’s ups and downs in the season. We’re going through a down now. We’ll get it together. I’m confident we will. We always have. And we’re going to find a way – we always do. I remember talking after games, sitting after losing a few in a row and bouncing back.”
The Kings deserve the benefit of the doubt. They’ve earned it. But there’s a fine line between confidence and complacency, especially in this situation.
This isn’t your usual Stanley Cup hangover, when a team wins in June, parties over a short summer and doesn’t have the same energy or passion in October and November. The Kings had the lockout to recharge. But if it’s hard for a typical champion to get up for the regular season, wouldn’t it be harder when you know you just struggled badly during the regular season and still won the Cup? You can say all the right things, but the truth is, you can’t fake it.
“You can’t manufacture urgency,” Brown said. “It’s either in your game or not, and a lot of that is attached to the emotion of the game.”
“I thought the break would have helped us out, get more prepared for it, but it’s obviously tough,” Richards said. “We have to be, I think, better as leaders in this dressing room to pull everybody else in it, and right now … We obviously can be better and we have to be better if we’re going to get where we need to go again.”
Based on last season, the Kings have to believe, in the backs of their minds, that all they need to do is get in the playoffs and get going at the right time again. And if so, they might be right. Problem is, thanks to the 48-game schedule, the season is already a quarter over. They know they can come back from a slow start, but as Kopitar said: “Not this slow. The season’s not too long.”
The Kings can’t bring Sutter off his Alberta farm again. He’s already behind the bench. So they have to do what got them into the playoffs and won them the Cup last season, and they’re capable of it even as Quick finds his form, even with Greene and Mitchell missing.
They did it in Detroit on Sunday – defending, forechecking, keeping the puck in the offensive end, going to the net, generating chances. They won’t run into a hot goalie like Jimmy Howard every time. Eventually, they will break through. And look ahead: After this road-heavy stretch, from Feb. 23 to March 23, they will play 13 out of 16 at home.
Brown is right. You can’t manufacture urgency in your mind coming into the season. But you can manufacture urgency in the standings as the season goes on, and the Kings have now done that, again. They will have to fight their way back, again. To repeat, the Kings will have to repeat that first.