Were they grasping at straws or coaxing small embers into becoming flames when the Kings repeatedly pointed out that their best players played better in the team's third straight playoff loss to San Jose than in the first two defeats?
Better, in this case, is a relative term. And despite a more intense and effective effort by the top players who must carry the load, the Kings still lost, 4-3, in overtime. Now, they must defeat the Sharks on Thursday at Staples Center to avoid being swept — and to prolong a season that only a few weeks ago held great promise for another long postseason run.
"It's a good opportunity for us to show — everybody's kind of writing us off right now — a good opportunity to show how resilient we are right now as a group," forward Mike Richards said Wednesday after the Kings' optional practice in El Segundo.
"We've done good things in the past and this is just another thing we have to be excited to accomplish."
No small thing, though. Only three NHL teams — the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders, and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers — have overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a best-of-seven playoff series.
"If you're still playing hockey, you still have a chance," said Richards, who played on that upstart Flyers team alongside current Kings teammate Jeff Carter.
"You just can't look at the mountain and expect to do it all at once. It's a process to just put games together, put shifts together. And it starts with Thursday night. You can't win four unless you win one."
Richards and Carter were among the big guns who gave the Kings a glimmer of hope after Game 3.
Winger Marian Gaborik, held without a point in the two lopsided losses at San Jose, scored an unassisted goal Tuesday that briefly gave the Kings a 2-1 lead. Carter, held to two assists in the first two games, also scored his first goal of the series when he put the Kings ahead, 3-2, on the continuation of a power play 51 seconds into the third period.
Richards, coming off a dreadful season in which he was dropped to the fourth line, didn't score Tuesday but mustered his most assertive performance. He was credited with a team-leading five shots on goal, including several prime scoring chances, and he won half of his 18 faceoffs while centering an assortment of wingers and killing penalties.
"Myself, as well as the team, just played my game," Richards said. "Tenacious on the puck. Moving feet. Get involved physically. And it's about getting better throughout the season. I've still got to play better and contribute offensively and try to help the team win."
On the negative side, he was on the ice for Tomas Hertl's tying goal at 9:17 of the third period, and for Patrick Marleau's backhand winner 6:20 into overtime. Richards has no points and is minus-three defensively in the series, numbers that must improve dramatically if the Kings are going to claw back into a series dominated by the deep, speedy and resilient Sharks.
"I think Mike and Gabby, for sure, stepped their games up in terms of the compete and the determination," Coach Darryl Sutter said. "Obviously for us to win a game against San Jose, there's got to be two or three guys more do that too. That's clear."
Richards' Game 3 performance must be the start of something bigger and better for him and for the Kings. If his regular-season numbers suggest he's unlikely to become a productive contributor, he contended the past doesn't matter when the team's immediate future has dwindled to one game.
"All the numbers during the season are out the window. All the numbers in the playoffs you can even throw out the window too," he said. "It's about helping the team have success no matter how it is. Every player in the dressing room has to look at it like that too. You can't worry about what happened in Game 2, what happened in Game 3 and in Game 1. It's all about Game 4 right now.
"Everyone should be excited with what we can do if we really put our minds to it and play well and stay mentally strong."
Ember or flame? We'll know Thursday.
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