Anze Kopitar looked around, seemingly confused. Ben Hutton fished the puck out of his own net. Jonathan Quick slowly climbed back to his feet.
The Kings were barely past the midway point of their 4-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at Staples Center, yet it was already apparent that another long night was beginning to set in.
Monday’s game started brightly enough for the Kings. They led in shots, and for long stretches of the night felt like they were controlling play. They scored on their second shift — a close-range finish from Alex Iafallo, who extended his point streak to seven games — and mounted a furious late comeback effort after a third-period Sean Walker goal trimmed their deficit to one.
In between, they didn’t exactly play poorly either. But two second-period defensive-zone breakdowns in minutes cost them.
“They did exactly to us what we did to them in the second,” coach Todd McLellan said. “We only gave up six shots [in the period]. Unfortunately, a couple of them go into the net.”
The first came at the 6:53 mark of the middle frame, when Blue Jackets forward Nathan Gerbe found open space in the high slot and slapped a one-timer past a partially screened Quick. Less than four minutes later, Columbus defenseman Scott Harrington snuck toward the net unchecked and buried a backdoor pass that left Kopitar, Hutton, Quick and the rest of the Kings in a state of familiar confusion.
An early third-period goal from Blue Jackets forward Kevin Stenlund ultimately put the game out of reach. The Blue Jackets added an empty-netter in the final minute, ensuring the Kings will do no better than .500 on a four-game homestand that offered the opportunity for a midseason winning streak. Instead, the Kings skated off home ice in a state of contemplation again, wondering how they let another winnable game slip away.
“We had a couple issues with some sort-outs coming back into the zone,” forward Trevor Lewis said. “But other than that, we definitely had a chance to win that game.”
Early in the season, inconsistent goaltending and lapses in the neutral zone sunk the Kings to a 4-9-0 start. Later, sorrowful special teams — including both power-play and penalty kill units that have statistically been among the NHL’s worst all season — and an 11-game road losing streak kept the team stuck near the bottom of the standings. Lately, a lack of scoring and lapses on defensive-zone faceoffs had been the group’s biggest bugaboos.
On Monday there were new problems, putting McLellan through another round of whack-a-mole. Every time the first-year coach seems to address one issue, a new one pops up.
McLellan acknowledged that, given the transitional phase the Kings find themselves, only their best performances are leading to wins.
“We have to play an A-game to win right now,” he said. “We have to play an A-game to score. We need tremendous goaltending. We need good penalty kill. We’ve got to prevent goals to have success. And that’s OK. We know where we are. That’s OK with us. But some nights we just don’t get all of that at the same time and it costs us.”
Monday was the latest occurrence, even despite the returns of veterans Dustin Brown (who had missed the previous four games with pneumonia), Lewis (out since Dec. 23 with a lower-body injury) and Derek Forbort (who made his long-awaited season debut after an offseason back injury).
“When we get off to good starts, it seems to be a good game for us,” Lewis said. “Tonight, we obviously got off to a good start but we kind of let up a little in the second and it got away from us.”