The signs were there all along.
But in the flush of the Kings’ early scoring success and their hot start — led by the goaltending acrobatics of feisty Jonathan Quick —it was easy to overlook that their defensive performances were beginning to unravel.
It didn’t seem to matter to anyone other than coach John Stevens, a former defenseman who was in charge of the team’s defense corps before he was promoted to the top job last summer, that they were giving up more scoring chances in dangerous areas than they should have been allowing, because Quick had stopped nearly 94% of all the shots he faced. And it wasn’t a big deal that the Kings had so many slow starts because they had assembled the NHL’s third-best record and had repeatedly showed they could come back and could outscore almost anyone.
It’s a big deal now.
The Kings were flat-footed and mostly defenseless through the early and middle stages of their 5-2 loss Thursday night to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had played the night before in San Jose.
The Kings gave up too many prime scoring chances to a team that has the NHL’s best record, a team that — like the Kings — used a non-playoff finish last season as inspiration to retool and reconfigure its lineup to compete at the quicker pace now required for success.
The Kings knew the Lighting would present a formidable challenge because of their speed, quick puck movement boosted by a mobile defense and exceptional scoring depth.
After the Kings’ morning skate, Stevens called Tampa Bay the best team he had seen this season. Defenseman Drew Doughty was effusive in praising the top line of Vladislav Namestnikov, NHL goal-scoring leader Nikita Kucherov and league scoring leader Steven Stamkos.
“I don’t know if there really is a better line out there right now,” Doughty said. “They’ve got three high-skilled players, high IQ, they all know how to score, they all know how to get open, they all know how to pass. It’s just a tough line to play against.”
Doughty and the Kings learned just how tough that task is.
Tampa Bay scored three times in a span of 68 seconds midway through the first period and added a power-play goal to cap a four-goal barrage in 2:02. The Kings had too many missed coverages and made too many bad reads. Offensively, they didn’t muster enough sustained pressure on Lightning backup goalie Peter Budaj, who did a solid job last season while he was a member of the Kings and stepped in after Quick sustained a long-term groin injury.
“We just didn’t play very good,” right wing Tyler Toffoli said. “There’s nothing really to say. When you had the start that we had I think we just kind of, I don’t know if it’s panic or cheat, but we just didn’t do a good job of getting sticks in the lane and getting back. When that happens against a team like that they capitalize and before you know it you’re down 4-0.”
For the Kings, their biggest margin of defeat this season was a team effort. They did push back, getting a goal late in the second period from Toffoli and having an apparent goal by Anze Kopitar waved off because of goaltender interference, another of the NHL’s maddeningly inconsistent rulings.
Kings defenseman Oscar Fantenberg’s goal from the high slot in the third period, his first NHL goal, closed the gap to 4-2, but Tampa Bay put the game out of reach on a shot by Namestnikov that caromed quickly in and out of the net at 12:59 of the third period.
“We knew they’re a good team. We knew it was going to be tough,” Fantenberg said.
“There was a little bit too much backing up in the beginning, giving them too much time and space, and they’re too good to give too much time and space.”
The Lightning made some significant changes after last season, including turning over half of its defense. Of course, Tampa Bay has benefited from having a healthy Stamkos; he suffered a knee injury 17 games into last season and didn’t return. Similarly, the Kings have benefited from having Quick at full strength after his groin injury last season.
“The one big thing for me is everybody’s bought into their roles,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “And when your players are buying into their roles, whether they’re playing eight minutes or 28 minutes, it’s good for your team dynamic and I think that’s been a big reason for our success.”