Austin Wagner skated back to the bench slowly, showing little emotion as his team’s fate became increasingly sealed on Monday night.
Moments earlier, the Kings’ speedy forward had streaked down the ice for a third-period breakaway. But like so many chances before it in the Kings’ 3-0 loss to the Arizona Coyotes, the opportunity amounted to nothing.
Last week, renewed optimism temporarily returned to the Kings’ campaign in the form of an unexpected 3-0 homestand. After recording consecutive wins just once in their first 17 games this season, coach Todd McLellan hoped his team could bottle their sudden hot streak.
“Whatever it is,” McLellan said Monday morning, “it needs to continue.”
Instead, the Kings reverted back to their rugged early-season form.
By the first intermission Monday night, the Coyotes had built a two-goal lead with tallies from Conor Garland (who buried a strong feed from Christian Dvorak barely three minutes into the game) and Derek Stepan (who finished off a tic-tac-toe power-play chance).
In a second period dominated by special teams – the teams took six combined penalties in the frame – the Coyotes cashed in for the second time with the man-advantage. The Kings, meanwhile, squandered each of their four power-play chances on the night.
“We tried to prepare our group for their quickness and their tenacity,” McLellan said. “We didn’t quite get there. We weren’t ready to experience it. It showed up in the first period. That led to penalties, to having the penalty kill do the work it had to do tonight. It didn’t get the job done.
“Same thing can be said for the power play. They were on top of us. They were quicker than we were.”
The Kings’ few third-period comeback bids fizzled, failing to ever crack Coyotes goalie Antti Raanta with any of their 30 shots. Monday’s off-the-ice antics – the Coyotes mockingly unveiled a replica of the Staples Center Taylor Swift banner the curse-conscious Kings have covered up for home games, sparking a Twitter standoff between the two club’s social media accounts – provided almost as much intrigue as anything that happened between the boards.
As Kings captain Anze Kopitar put it, “We were just too slow. Our feet weren’t moving, our mind wasn’t as sharp as it needed to be.”
Earlier Monday, McLellan had warned of a Coyotes club emerging from the type of rebuilding process in which the Kings currently find themselves. As he predicted, their stingy style suffocated his group, sucking the life out of whatever short-lived momentum the Kings had built the week before.
“We’ve got to learn a lesson that we better be up to speed right off the bat,” McLellan said, adding: “especially in the third, we had a few opportunities, we created some chances. We didn’t go away, which can be a little bit of a moral victory for us. But we can’t rely on those at this point. We’ve got to show up and be ready to play from period one on and not put ourselves in that situation.”