The first morning of the first day of the season began with Drew Doughty laughing with members of the Rogers Place ice crew. It began with Blake Lizotte razzing goalie Jack Campbell for an exaggerated glove save during the pregame skate. It began with new coach Todd McLellan hardly raising his voice, leaving only the clatter of sticks and pucks to echo through an empty arena.
In short, it began with hope.
“I’ve never been so excited to start a hockey season,” Doughty said Saturday afternoon. “I think everyone here is feeling that same energy.”
By the end of the night, the Kings were feeling something else. After a dizzying, discombobulated 6-5 loss to the Edmonton Oilers — a game that saw the Kings fall behind in the first minute, battle back to take four one-goal leads, then run out of gas as the Oilers staged a third-period comeback — they looked drained.
After James Neal’s eventual game-winning power-play goal with less than seven minutes left, the Kings couldn’t answer. They trudged off the ice with hands on knees and heads hanging, losers on a night they felt they should have won.
“There was some really good stuff,” McLellan said. “And then there was some stuff we need to work on. The six [goals allowed] isn’t going to cut it.”
Entering the third period tied 3-3, Michael Amadio put the Kings in front by whacking a bouncing puck past Oilers goalie Mike Smith. Less than two minutes later though, Oilers forward Joakim Nygard leveled the score with a four-on-four goal off an offensive zone faceoff.
With less than 12 minutes to play, Doughty nudged the Kings ahead once more.
On the power play, he teed up a one-timer from the top of the left-hand circle that slid under Smith’s pads, then raised a leg and pumped his fist.
“At that point,” said captain Anze Kopitar, who tallied a team-high three points, “you have to lock it down.”
Yet, once again, the one-goal advantage wouldn’t last. Almost two minutes later, Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse took a pass in the high slot and sneaked a snapshot inside the post to Kings goalie Jonathan Quick’s glove side.
Neal delivered the decisive blow with 6:32 remaining, left alone near the net on an Oilers power play and able to jam the puck past Quick.
The Kings were handed a lifeline with 45 seconds left, when Neal went to the box for tripping. But an off-target Kopitar backhander was as close as they’d come.
“We didn’t want to get in a track meet with that team,” McLellan said. “It ended up that way.”
A year ago, belief dwindled quickly for the Kings. They lost in overtime on opening night, stumbled to a 2-7-1 start, fired coach John Stevens four days into November and languished in the basement of the Western Conference the rest of the year.
“You look at last year, and when you don’t have a good start to the season, you’re digging yourself into a hole,” forward Kyle Clifford said. “In this league, it’s not easy to get out of.”
Entering this year, the Kings’ expectations couldn’t have been much less promising. But for a while Saturday, they traded haymakers with an Oilers team with more speed and skill, that was carried by superstar captain Connor McDavid’s four-point performance and scored on two of five power plays.
On the road, the Kings had more shots, more hits and won more faceoffs.
“We have a proud group,” McLellan said before the game. “Is that enough to get us a whole bunch of wins? I don’t know.”
On a day that began with optimism for the Kings, it almost was. But to reverse the despair they suffered last year, something more will be required too.
“We just can’t let them back in it like that,” Doughty said. “We should never lose a game when we’re up 5-4 with however many minutes were left. … It can’t happen.”