Drew Doughty was unequivocal on Tuesday afternoon, the Kings’ veteran defenseman’s faith unwavering even in the wake of a sudden losing skid that felt eerily similar to those that sunk the team last season.
“I know that we’re a better team than we were last year,” Doughty said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
The Kings’ performance Wednesday night, however, was less convincing. In a 5-3 loss to the Vancouver Canucks at Staples Center, they were outshot by a season-worst 49-24, surrendered a season-most four power-play goals and dropped a season-high fourth game in a row.
“It affects the whole team,” coach Todd McLellan said of the repeated penalty kills. “It takes guys out of the play. The momentum goes away, or you never get a chance to gain it. You’re either killing or you’re getting scored on.”
Where complacency took hold last season — leading to a last-place finish in the Western Conference and losing streaks of six, four and 10 games — McLellan this week tried to light a competitive fire under his squad after three consecutive defeats at the end of last week’s trip.
The first-year bench boss inserted rookie forward Carl Grundstrom, recalled this week from the minors, into a newlook top line alongside Jeff Carter and Anze Kopitar. Tyler Toffoli was a healthy scratch, snapping a streak of 207 consecutive appearances (which had been the 20th-longest active such streak in the league). Defenseman Joakim Ryan was replaced with Kurtis MacDermid.
The message: The Kings are willing to make changes in search of results. Their players understand the new standards.
“Last year, the frustrating thing was, early in the season everyone was saying, ‘Oh, it will turn around. It will turn around. It’s going to come.’ It just never turned around,” Doughty said. “This year … it’s about making it turn around. I think that’s what our focus is in here. We’re a lot more confident in this team this year than we were last year.”
They looked so early Wednesday, striking first after Kopitar (who recorded his 900th career point) set up Carter (who scored twice) in front of the Canucks goal for a backhanded finish.
But then the Kings’ parade to the penalty box began.
They took four minor penalties in the opening period, leading to two Canucks goals from Brock Boeser (a sharp-angle shot) and Bo Horvat (a deflected point shot). In the second and third, they took two more — both of which the Canucks capitalized on.
“We took two or three penalties tonight that were unnecessary,” McLellan said. “They didn’t prevent goals, they didn’t affect the play at all.
As a result, the penalty kill goes to work and it’s been very poor, tonight especially … Certainly not of NHL standards.”
Adrian Kempe scored a power-play goal to tie the game at 2-2 in the second before Boeser got behind the Kings’ defense on a partial line change later in the period and lifted a backhanded deke past goalie Jonathan Quick’s blocker for a go-ahead goal.
Boeser scored again 55 seconds into the third — the Canucks’ third power-play goal — after his centering pass deflected off Doughty’s skate and into the net for his third career hat trick.
Elias Pettersson sniped Quick on the man-advantage later in the period, dropping the Kings’ season-long penalty kill success rate to 68.8%.
“Let’s face it, if we gave up one penalty-kill goal tonight, we’d maybe be talking about a different story,” McLellan said. “We can talk about lines and combinations and sitting guys out and all that [but] the penalty kill is the story.”
The Kings will end the season’s opening month with only eight points in 13 games, stuck in last place in the Western Conference.
Already, vultures are beginning to circle (Ottawa Senators general manager Pierre Dorion and more than 20 other league scouts and executives were listed as Staples Center attendees Wednesday). The promise of the season’s early weeks is fading fast. Yet, their search for answers continues.
“We dropped three in a row [before tonight],” Kopitar said. “So you know changes are going to happen.”