The year started off so promisingly for the Kings. They were motivated, healthy and rested after a 2014-15 season in which they uncharacteristically missed the playoffs.
All of the summer's main distractions — starting with Slava Voynov's departure to Russia — were well behind them by the start of the regular season. And yet, on Friday night at Staples Center, all their regular-season success provided little comfort.
The Kings fell three goals behind early, tied it with a furious second-period rally, but ultimately lost, 6-3, to the San Jose Sharks, who won the best-of-seven first round series, four games to one.
Sharks rookie Joonas Donskoi scored the series-clinching goal, at 3:58 of the third period.
Sharks captain Joe Pavelski, who had been a consistent thorn in the Kings' side throughout the series, then increased the lead to two goals with 7:36 to go in the third, making it 5-3, fooling Kings goalie Jonathan Quick with a snap shot from the right circle that squeezed between his pads.
“It's hard to describe the feeling now,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “We weren't really on top of our game, at all. We battled. We had spurts of it, but we couldn't maintain it.
“We just weren't good enough collectively, or individually. I don't think it was from a lack of effort. We don't have any dogs [in here]. Everyone is working. We just weren't executing.”
Two years ago, the Kings put together a comeback for the ages to eliminate San Jose after falling behind 3-0 in the series. There would be no historic rally this time around.
San Jose's relentless shot-blocking and another strong performance in goal from Martin Jones, the former understudy to Quick, helped make all the difference.
Donskoi gave them an early lead, scoring only 1:08 into the game. Chris Tierney extended the Sharks' lead to 2-0 before the first period ended.
Matt Nieto scored early in the second to extend San Jose's lead to three goals. But Quick gave the Kings an important save and boost when he stopped Patrick Marleau on a second-period penalty shot.
Shortly thereafter, Anze Kopitar got the Kings on the board with his second goal of the series, which enlivened the sellout crowd, at 7:44 of the second. Jeff Carter closed the gap to a single goal with a smartly placed shot under the crossbar, after a feed from Jake Muzzin.
With the Sharks on their heels and scrambling, Kris Versteeg then tied it, 3-3, gathering up the rebound of a Kyle Clifford shot.
Almost as quickly, the momentum vanished in the third.
“The bottom line is we didn't play well enough to win the series, and they did,” Kopitar said. “It showed on the scoreboard. We were chasing the lead pretty much every game and that's just not the way you play in the playoffs. We made it hard on ourselves, first of all, to lose the first two games in this building.”
The Kings were without defenseman Alec Martinez (injured groin) after the first game and their key offensive players, starting with leading goal-scorer Tyler Toffoli, had a relatively quiet series. Kings Coach Darryl Sutter mentioned the loss of Martinez as being one of the factors in an evenly matched series.
In 2014, the Kings had all the answers against San Jose, once they planted a seed of doubt in the Sharks' collective minds. This time, they head into the off-season, full of questions.
Is this where power forward Milan Lucic, a pending free agent, wants to be next season? “Yes, 100%,” Lucic said. “I definitely have no plans or even think about anywhere else. I'm sure there will be a lot of conversations in the near future and I hope it works out for both sides.”
Follow Lisa Dillman on Twitter @reallisa