Coach Todd McLellan began the Kings’ matchup with the St. Louis Blues on Monday night with something of a Christmas wish.
After the Kings’ recent 4-1-2 stretch revived optimism in the middle of an otherwise dreary season, McLellan had hoped they could deliver another gift-wrapped performance in their final game before the NHL’s three-day holiday break.
He was wary of the circumstances. “I hate this game,” he said in the afternoon, adding, “These are often unpredictable. But he had confidence in a suddenly surging team.
“You just hope you get off to a good start,” he said. “Play hard, play through it.”
Rather than getting a head start on their holiday celebrations, the Kings (15-20-4) gave up four goals in the first 13 minutes en route to a 4-1 defeat in Staples Center, ensuring they’ll spend the hiatus tied for last place in the Western Conference.
“Frustrating, certainly, because we weren’t engaged,” McLellan said.
The Kings came unraveled right away. Their opening shifts were sabotaged by defensive-zone turnovers. Goalie Jonathan Quick uncharacteristically gave up dangerous rebounds.
After the Blues opened the scoring on a deflected Brayden Schenn shot less than five minutes into the game, Kings defenseman Ben Hutton slashed a player. The Blues cashed in less than 10 seconds into the power play.
McLellan called time out, hoping to stymie the early hole at 2-0. But at the 11-minute, 22-second mark of the first period, forward Vince Dunn skated around Kings defenders in their end before firing a wrist shot past Quick.
Fifty-nine seconds later, the Blues cashed in on another man advantage after a dump-in deflected off Drew Doughty’s glove and sprang a two-on-zero rush by the Blues.
McLellan stood still, looked up and down the bench, then simply dropped his head to re-watch the goal the Kings gifted the defending Stanley Cup champions. A late first-period power-play goal by Alex Iafallo was all the Kings could conjure in response.
“We didn’t make a play. We were sitting back, we weren’t aggressive, PK was not up to par,” said Anze Kopitar, who noted that some bad habits had been creeping in toward the end of the Kings’ trip last week.
On Thursday, the Kings were within five points of a wild-card spot despite an overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets. Monday was a reality check.
“We’re not playing to just improve and rebuild this season,” Doughty said. “We’re trying to make the playoffs.”
To do that, however, requires consistency.
Last season, the Blues overcame a slow first half — they were in last place on New Year’s Day — to win their first NHL championship.
The Kings aren’t an exact copy — the Blues were always expected to be good last season — but there are still lessons to learn from St. Louis’ turnaround.
“We’re in a different spot,” McLellan said, “but the will to win shouldn’t be any different.”
That wasn’t the case Monday, especially in the opening period. The Blues recorded 15 of the game’s first 22 chances, generated virtually all of the good early opportunities, feasted on the Kings’ seven first-period giveaways, and were able to coast their way into the Christmas break.
Conversely, the Kings will be seeking some form of recovery.
In the grind of an NHL season, even a three-day break “can seem like a month,” McLellan said.