So how is it that the Kings can play up to the level of the NHL’s top teams but still hover around .500?
That they can commit thoughtless mistakes -- one of which led to a successful penalty shot Wednesday by the New York Rangers -- but still take the second-best team in the East to overtime and then have every reason to feel dissatisfied after a 3-2 loss?
The conclusion is inescapable: They will go nowhere, and might soon regress, if they don’t upgrade their goaltending.
Facing the Rangers, a fast and skillful team that could get deeper if free-agent center Mats Sundin lands there, the Kings were superior in every area but the one that counts most.
Jason LaBarbera , who will get most of the playing time while Erik Ersberg recovers from a pulled groin muscle, was beaten to the glove side on a 50-foot shot by defenseman Michal Rozsival 3:41 into overtime. That delighted the many Rangers fans in the Staples Center crowd of 17,166 but left Kings supporters with an all-too familiar sinking feeling.
LaBarbera had stopped a hard wrist shot by Chris Drury seconds before, but the Rangers maintained possession of the puck and got it back to Rozsival for a formidable blast.
“I think the effort was there and we can be satisfied with our playing,” Anze Kopitar said, “but it’s frustrating to not win.”
As frustrating as it was for the Kings to play San Jose so well on Monday and lose in a shootout.
At some point a good effort alone won’t be enough.
Players will need a reward in the form of results or the season could go completely off track. That time could come soon if the goaltenders can’t make the big saves and win a few games and generally muster the kind of performances just about every other player has made on a fairly consistent basis.
Despite cutting down on opponents’ shots the Kings have given up more goals (87) than they’ve scored (83). Their team save percentage is below 90% and that’s not good enough.
Coach Terry Murray doesn’t think his team is at the breaking point yet and said he didn’t think his players could play any better as a team right now.
“We did a great job,” he said. “I’m really happy with how everybody responded to the challenge of playing one of the top teams on the other side.”
Patrick O’Sullivan (first period) and Dustin Brown (an inadvertent deflection of a Sean O’Donnell shot at 2:27 of the third) scored the Kings’ goals. In between, the Kings had some dominant stretches in which they moved the puck quickly and crisply. Overall, they outshot the Rangers, 41-30.
Their first goal against Stephen Valiquette, a 1996 Kings draft pick who never made it to the NHL with them, was during a power play. Brown set it up with a pass off the boards to Kopitar, who threaded the puck through the crease, past a Rangers defenseman and over to the right side. O’Sullivan was there to finish it off for his eighth goal of the season.
The Rangers pulled even on an odd play at 19:16. O’Donnell had the puck and tried to get it to defense partner Matt Greene but it glanced off Greene’s skate. O’Donnell tried to get it back but was tied up by Rangers forward Nigel Dawes, allowing Drury to pounce and use Greene as a screen for a short wrist shot. LaBarbera got a piece of it but not enough.
The Rangers took the lead at 12:33 of the second period after being awarded a penalty shot due to a rare infraction.
Jarret Stoll had lost his stick in the Kings’ zone and O’Donnell tried to push it out of the way. Instead, O’Donnell shot the stick at Rozsival as the defenseman prepared to shoot from the left point, resulting in a penalty shot under NHL rule 53.6. That rule states that when a player on the defending team throws or shoots a stick or other object or piece of equipment at the puck or puck carrier in his defending zone and prevents a reasonable shot or pass, the referee can award a penalty shot if a goal isn’t scored on that play.
Rozsival, taking his first career penalty shot, scored on a nifty backhander. “I’m not used to doing this,” Rozsival said.
The Kings are being accustomed to falling just short, and that’s getting tiresome.
They were 2-0-2 on this homestand and have played 22 games at Staples Center, more than half their home schedule. They face a trip that begins with games Friday at Buffalo and Saturday at Detroit, and Murray said he might start Jonathan Quick, summoned from Manchester to replace Ersberg, in one of those games.
Whoever is in goal must learn that close isn’t good enough anymore.