Anze Kopitar sat stone-faced at his locker Thursday night, dazed by the Kings’ latest disappointing result. In the wake of his team’s loss to the Buffalo Sabres earlier this week, Kopitar didn’t want to talk about the Kings’ incremental improvements, subtle early-season growth, or occasional moments of promising play.
None of that mattered. Not with the Kings — who have a new coach, approach and mentality — still struggling to find wins.
“We might be playing a little bit better, yeah, sure,” the Kings’ captain said. “Make no mistake. Nobody likes losing in here.”
Two nights later, the Kings snapped a three-game losing streak with a dominant 4-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Saturday at Staples Center. This time, they were rewarded for a complete effort.
Tyler Toffoli scored in the opening two minutes. Jeff Carter tallied his first goal. Kopitar netted a short-handed breakaway. The Kings’ power-play converted for the first time in six games. Goalie Jonathan Quick stopped 23 shots.
After a week of squandered chances and frustrating setbacks, the Kings finally put together all the pieces in the finale of their five-game homestand. It was arguably their most complete game all season.
Yet, at 3-5-0, the Kings remain in last place in the Pacific Division. They’ve made small strides, but still seem somewhat stuck in place. Like a group grinding on the treadmill, tangible gains have come slowly. The best word to describe their opening eight games: enigmatic.
Entering Saturday, the Kings led the NHL in shot differential and Corsi-For percentage, which measures the number of shot attempts a team creates during five-on-five play relative to its opponent. They largely passed the eye test too, showing progress from last season’s flat 71-point campaign.
But much was missing too, magnifying the foundational cracks that coach Todd McLellan and his team still have to fix.
“The whole group has been good,” McLellan said. “Analytically — and I’m not a true, true believer in analytics — there’s a lot of positive things with our team. But the page you look at first is always the standings, and we’re not where we’d like to be.”
Special teams have been the most obvious impediment. On the power play, the Kings had been mired in an 0-for-19 slump before Ilya Kovalchuk buried a one-timer in the second period Saturday. The penalty kill has been equally inconsistent, making the Kings the only team that ranked in the bottom five in the NHL in both special-teams situations entering Saturday.
Against the Flames, both units took a step forward.
“We did a great job taking away their main threats on the power play,” Quick said. “They have a few plays they like to go to, that work really well. We did a good job taking that away. We were blocking shots, winning faceoffs. The PK was huge.”
During even-strength play, the Kings had started to grasp the basics of McLellan’s high-pressure system before Saturday, yet were still prone to lapses. They were allowing too many “long opportunities,” as McLellan describes them, where opponents broke out of their own end with little resistance and generated dangerous full-ice rushes.
Of the 21 five-on-five goals the Kings surrendered through seven games, eight came on such plays. Against the Flames, however, the only goal the Kings gave up was a penalty shot late in the third. Other than that, they clamped down on Calgary’s lineup.
Most of all, the Kings hadn’t been capitalizing on chances or overcoming breakdowns. Despite their volume of shots, their 7.5% shooting percentage entering Saturday was more than two points below league average. Their goalies’ .845 save percentage was a distant last. In the most critical areas, they were coming up short.
“You eventually get a little bit concerned about the guys giving what they have and not getting rewarded,” McLellan said. “Will they begin to cheat? Will they take shortcuts? Will they wander from the program to try and score? They didn’t do that, so that’s a real good sign for our team.”
Instead, by blowing past the Flames, the Kings produced a glimpse of the type of future McLellan is slowly hoping to create.
“There is a clear plan,” McLellan said. “The team has to be restructured. It’s trying to catch up with the modern game right now, if you will … the youthfulness and creativity and the pace of the game, we’re trying to catch up in that area. Usually, when you’re doing that, you’re paying the price for championships. And that’s what’s happening here right now.”