From Montreal —
The promise the Kings showed while climbing atop the Western Conference has vanished, obliterated by timid defensive-zone play and a mysterious retreat from the staunch work ethic that was their trademark.
Their 4-1 loss Wednesday to the speedy and skillful Canadiens at the Bell Centre, their fifth defeat in six games, was an unaccountably meek performance.
“Tonight seemed to be the worst effort out of all of them,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said, one of the few things any member of the Kings got right.
In finishing a 1-3 trip, they exposed goaltender Jonathan Bernier to countless close-in chances because they failed to muscle the Canadiens out of the slot. Worse, they exposed Bernier, a native of nearby Laval, to jeers in his first game against the team he loved as a child.
No goalie — not Jonathan Quick, not the ghosts of Jacques Plante and Georges Vezina combined — could have done much better against the puck-hungry Canadiens.
“It’s always special for a French guy to come in here and play in Montreal and maybe even more for a goaltender,” Dustin Brown said. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t help him out at all tonight.”
The Kings (13-8-0, 5-7 on the road) passed the one-quarter mark of the season with many questions and no answers in sight.
Alec Martinez, recalled Tuesday from Manchester of the American Hockey League, did as asked and scored a power-play goal, a nifty backhander that sliced Montreal’s lead to 2-1 at 1:57 of the second period. But the Canadiens stormed back a minute and 19 seconds later on Tomas Plekanec’s hard, 18-foot shot after Bernier had made a save on Brian Gionta.
Lars Eller’s first goal of the season, off a long wrist shot at 18:07 of the second period, was the final flourish.
“Our game hasn’t been there and it wasn’t there tonight,” Brown said. “We’ve got to get back to … I think first we’ve got to get back to working hard. We’re not working nearly as hard as we were when we were winning games.”
The Canadiens scored the game’s first goal during a power play, after a shorthanded effort by Anze Kopitar was well defended and defused. Montreal came back up ice and Andrei Kostitsyn finished off the rush with a 25-foot wrist shot at 9:59.
“I don’t like that first goal. I don’t like it at all,” Kings Coach Terry Murray said. “And after that we broke down in a lot of areas.”
Former King Michael Cammalleri made it a 2-0 lead during a four-on-four situation. Montreal’s rapid and accurate puck movement confounded the Kings, who couldn’t move Scott Gomez out of Bernier’s face and allowed him to be a screen when Cammalleri’s shot deflected in front and past Bernier at 17:37.
Bernier, who has lost his last three decisions, acknowledged he must be better. But that won’t happen unless the Kings are better at dispersing traffic in front of him.
“I think that’s one thing that we’ve got to maybe work on,” said Bernier, who had about 60 friends and relatives in the sellout crowd. “I just feel they were good at tipping pucks and getting in front of the net and staying there.
“We were a little step behind on every play and they’re a good team. They have some skilled guys and they were making plays in our D zone.”
The Kings haven’t won in Montreal since Dec. 11, 1999, though that’s deceptive because the unbalanced schedule has sent them here only five times since. Still, the way they played Wednesday won’t be good enough to beat anyone, anywhere.
Brown said the team’s defensive-zone reads have been faulty, and that’s alarming. A defense that appeared to be deep has been thrown off kilter far more than it should be since Willie Mitchell fractured his left arm Nov. 6. Slumping Matt Greene played 13 minutes 37 seconds, his second-lightest workload this season. Davis Drewiske played only 13:15. The forwards provided little help.
“Our Xs and O’s might be off but if you’re not working everything is going to be off,” Brown said. “We’re missing assignments because we’re a step too late. That’s a result of not being ready. It’s unacceptable.”
But it’s inarguable at the moment.