Fresh off their bye week, the Kings and Ducks were energetic and in a feisty mood Saturday night at Staples Center. Three fights that resulted in six major fighting penalties within the first two minutes and 33 seconds attested to their eagerness to resume play and to resume hostilities.
"Guys were excited to come back," Kings defenseman Alec Martinez said.
The Kings' excitement didn't last long enough. They fell behind by two goals in the first period and by three early in the third before they began to push back, moving within one before Corey Perry's empty-netter with 88 seconds left clinched the Ducks' 4-2 victory. It was the Kings' first loss to their closest geographic rival in three games this season and it dropped their record against fellow Pacific division teams to 5-6-3. It also extended their losing streak to three, cause for concern because there's a common but correctable thread in those defeats.
"We haven't played a full 60 minutes," Martinez said. "I think back before the break, you look at our second periods and they haven't been good enough. [On Saturday] our start wasn't good enough. I think we're just not putting together a full game, and you can't afford to do that in this league."
The importance of mustering an all-out effort every game is magnified now, as the season lurches toward the All-Star break and deeper into its second half. Division-leading Vegas (8-1-1 in its past 10 games) hasn't had the struggles expected of an expansion team. Calgary on Sunday won its seventh straight game and moved into second place, a point ahead of the Kings. Colorado, also riding an 8-1-1 surge, unexpectedly has become a factor in the playoff scramble. And the Ducks are as healthy as they're going to get. They've made late-season playoff pushes before and they have the depth to do it again.
A lapse or two against division rivals and anything less than a full effort in every game could leave teams outside the playoff picture.
"It's a tight division, conference," Martinez said. "We've been the hunters and we've been the hunted. We've kind of slipped, I think, as of late. We've got to figure it out and get back to playing a full game and playing our team game."
Consistency will be everyone's mantra from here on out, meaning relentless efforts within games and over days and weeks at a time.
"This is the type of hockey that you're going to see down the stretch. This is the importance of the games," Ducks coach Randy Carlyle said. "I think you've got to see it for 60 minutes, and you've got to see it on a consistent basis. And we're going to play some real good hockey clubs as we go down the stretch here.
"We're going to go into Colorado on Monday — they went into Dallas and beat them 4-1. Much different type of hockey club than what we saw [Saturday]. They're more of a scooting team, a skating team, and we're going to have to be strong, and strong defensively, and play the body on them also."
Ducks captain Ryan Getzlaf said his team felt some pressure after its lead was sliced from three goals to one but no one panicked. "It was good to see our composure stayed the same and we kept playing," he said. That hasn't always been the case for the Ducks, who must stay composed to make up ground and get back in playoff position.
There's nothing wrong with the Kings' strategy or game plan, center Anze Kopitar said. The responsibility lies with players to be consistent within a framework that has been crucial to their turnaround from missing the playoffs last season.
"We don't put together a 60-minute effort where we're firing on all cylinders right from the get-go and all throughout the game. There's definitely room for improvement in that department," Kopitar said. "We've just got to play. Now the system has been proven that it's working, but it's up to us to put in the work and the compete level's got to get higher. And, I guess, the desperation level."
Desperate times don't always call for desperate measures. For playoff hopefuls in the NHL, these times call for consistency.