Todd McLellan called a timeout and tried to calm his team. For the second time in a week, the Kings let a three-goal lead slip away. A once-celebratory Staples Center crowd had been silenced, leaving only a nervous murmur to sweep through the stands. From behind the bench, McLellan posed his players a question.
“We talked about the identity,” McLellan said after the game. “What do we want to be?”
With 59 seconds left in regulation, they answered.
After several minutes of sustained pressure, the Kings finally broke the tie in the final minute. Nashville Predators goalie Juuse Saros saved a wide-angle shot from Kings winger Dustin Brown but let the rebound roll off his pad. Crashing the net near the back post, fellow winger Alex Iafallo buried the loose puck for the game-winning goal.
After winning only 17 times on home ice last year, the Kings added two empty-netters to claim their home opener this season 7-4. By the final horn, the party inside their cavernous venue was back on.
“The guys played well enough to win, we just gave it back,” McLellan said. “My satisfaction is to see them happy, playing the music [in the locker room postgame], and understanding who we can become.”
During the first 40 minutes, the chorus of Kings cheers hardly halted.
Before puck drop, fans hollered for faces old (including Brown, Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick) and new (namely, McLellan) as they were introduced on the video board. They joyously responded again and again thereafter, coming to life as the Kings rallied after an early Predators goal by scoring four of their own.
“We played on our toes, we played well within our system, we won faceoffs, we had good possession,” McLellan said of the Kings’ start. “Then, we were able to roll four lines.”
Following a six-goal loss Wednesday night against the Vancouver Canucks, McLellan mixed up his bottom three lines Saturday. It paid immediate dividends. Less than four minutes after Mikael Granlund opened the scoring for the Predators, Kings center Michael Amadio — who was bumped up from the fourth to third line — collected a shot in front of the Nashville net and stickhandled around Saros to even the score.
Later in the first, Brown weaved through the neutral zone before sliding a backhand pass to Kopitar, who snapped a one-timer from the right-wing faceoff dot that beat Saros upstairs.
Early in the second period, Kyle Clifford deflected a point shot from defenseman Joakim Ryan to make it 3-1. Minutes before the second intermission, Amadio gobbled up a Predators turnover in the offensive zone and sent a saucer pass toward the back post for linemate Ilya Kovalchuk to bury.
But just like on Tuesday night in Calgary, when the Kings squandered a three-goal lead before finally defeating the Flames in overtime, they sat back in the third period again Saturday. Barely a minute into the frame, Predators forward Viktor Arvidsson trimmed the Kings’ lead to two. Matt Duchene banked a puck off Doughty and into the net for a power-play tally just past the period’s halfway point. Colton Sissons tipped a shot past Kings goalie Jack Campbell — who made 28 saves — 34 seconds later that tied the score.
That’s when McLellan, in his first home game with the Kings, called a timeout and issued his challenge.
“We talked about reestablishing a forecheck, getting aggressive,” McLellan said. “If we make mistakes, we’ll live with them. But let’s get going again, the way we can play, the way we want to play.”
The Kings responded by collecting six of the final seven shots. In the closing minutes, Iafallo hit the post, a redirection from Brown at the top of the crease was denied, and Kopitar had a shot saved. Finally, Iafallo delivered the dagger.
“We had a tough stretch the first 10 minutes of the third, but then we had a lot of grade-A scoring chances before we got the goal that put us ahead,” Brown said. “I think it’s encouraging we’re not down in the dumps after blowing a three-goal lead at home.”
Asked whether the wins over the Flames and Predators, both division winners a season ago, is a sign the Kings could become a surprise competitor in the league, Brown smirked. After all the Kings’ losses last year, he didn’t want to get ahead of himself. So far this season, both their wins have come the hard way.
“We’re going to compete either way,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to be done in learning how to win again.”