A victory over the Sharks on Saturday would have given the Kings the top spot in the Western Conference to hold throughout the NHL's Christmas break. Players and coaches spoke about that possibility Saturday morning, calling it a sign of the progress they've made following last season's failure to reach the playoffs while also saying they know they have work to do before they can declare themselves a long-term success.
It turned out they were right about having work to do.
Instead of enjoying the view from the top, the Kings went into the holiday break with a 2-0 loss to San Jose in a hard-hitting game at SAP Center. The indignity of being shut out for the first time this season was compounded by the blanking being inflicted by former Kings backup goalie Martin Jones, who made 28 saves to earn his 100th career victory. He recorded the first 16 of those victories in a Kings uniform, as the backup to Jonathan Quick.
The leader in the West at Christmas is — incredibly — the expansion Vegas Golden Knights. The Kings, Golden Knights and St. Louis all have earned 48 points, but Vegas has played 34 games, while the Kings have played 37 and the Blues 38.
"We're still in a really good spot. I don't think there was a lot of people thinking we were going to be in this spot to begin with," Kings captain Anze Kopitar said. "We realize where we are. We also realize we can't sneak up on anybody anymore. We've got to go out and play hard. In order to win games we're going to need every single one of us playing at their very best."
They didn't have that going for them on Saturday. "We created some good looks and when we did, Jonesy was really good," Kings coach John Stevens said. "Jonathan gave us a chance to win the hockey game. We just need a little more."
Forward Marcus Sorensen scored from the slot at 10:01 of the second period, getting an easy path toward Quick after Kings forwards Torrey Mitchell and Andy Andreoff collided and took themselves out of the play. Tomas Hertl was credited with the second goal, in a scoring change made after the game. Joe Pavelski won a faceoff from Kopitar during a power play and went to the net in hope of getting a deflection. Pavelski did deflect Brent Burns' booming shot but it went off Hertl's leg before it eluded Quick at 7:35 of the third period.
The Kings had two power plays to five for the Sharks, leaving the Kings frustrated and fueling the game's late nastiness. "We thought they deserved to have a few against them that weren't called and we kind of took it out on a few of their guys," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "They weren't afraid to give it back."
Doughty, who took one of those third-period penalties, was philosophical about not meeting the team's goal of being No. 1 in the West at the break. "We'll have a good Christmas and come back and try to win all those games coming back," he said. "We're in a playoff spot and six points ahead of these guys. We're not happy with maybe the last 10 games we played. Happy with maybe only a few of them. But we're happy with the spot we're in overall."
And it's a pretty good spot to be in. Kopitar and Dustin Brown have enjoyed rebirths and the team is consistently playing at a quicker pace at the urging of Stevens. Quick has been sharp, too, including his 29-save effort Saturday. During the absence of center Jeff Carter, who is recovering from a cut ankle tendon, younger players have stepped up to play significant roles. Most have lacked consistency, but that's common.
As Stevens said, few experts would have picked the Kings to be fighting for the division and conference lead at this stage of the season based on their having missed the playoffs two of the past three seasons. They've earned nothing yet, but he's pleased with the leadership and the learning curve he has seen so far. "I think we can be happy with where we're at in terms of the standings but we really have to be honest that we have a lot of work to do," he said.
So far, so good. But good isn't good enough for the Kings anymore. That's progress, too.