Kings’ loss to Wild came at the end of a hectic, ‘messed up day’
When Kings coach Todd McLellan went to bed on Wednesday night, his team was in a good place.
Seven games into this pandemic-shortened season, they had eight points and were fourth in the West Division standings. They had a largely healthy roster that was beginning to mesh, unchanged in each of their three previous games. And for the first time all year, they were about to go for a two-game sweep, hoping to finish their first road trip of the campaign with back-to-back wins in Minnesota.
But by the next morning, that all began to change, resulting in what McLellan called a “messed up day” that saw the Kings lose one player to COVID protocols, two to frightening-looking injuries and their series finale against the Wild.
Here is a chronological look at Thursday’s hectic turn of events — a stark reminder of how unpredictable any given day in this season can be:
6:30 a.m. — Athanasiou out: Just before sunrise on a cold Minnesota morning, McLellan’s phone began to ring. The coach was being notified that winger Andreas Athanasiou, the team’s third-leading scorer over the season’s first two weeks, was being added to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol list and would be unavailable for that night’s game.
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Team members can enter the protocol for any number of reasons, including testing positive for the virus, exhibiting symptoms of the virus or coming into close contact with a person with a confirmed case of the virus, among others. It’s unknown what prompted Athanasiou’s absence, or how long he will be forced to isolate from the team. Protocol rules didn’t allow him to fly back to Los Angeles on the team plane Thursday night.
But one thing was clear right away. The Kings’ once-seamless season-first road trip was coming undone on its very last day. “The whole thing,” McLellan said, “kicked into place.”
8:30 a.m. — Atypical morning skate: Usually, optional morning skates follow a simple routine. Some Kings players will stretch out their legs and get a quick sweat going. The first goaltender off the ice signals who will start that night’s game. Kings coaches typically have a power-play meeting with their team. And then it’s back to the hotel for a quiet pregame afternoon.
That was not the case Thursday for the Kings. Instead, they were scrambling to complete contact tracing and subsequent COVID tests on the rest of their roster, worried that up to half-a-dozen players were potentially in danger of missing the evening’s game.
“I didn’t know if it was going to be six or one [players missing] or anything like that,” McLellan said.
During his media session after practice, however, the coach wore a poker face.
Asked how the four-game trip had gone, McLellan answered coyly: “As smooth as smooth can be.”
When pressed on potential lineup changes, he again didn’t blink: “We’ll get an update on bumps and bruises, then make a decision from there. Nothing that’s dramatic at this point.”
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Late afternoon — Piecing together the roster: In reality, McLellan still didn’t know how badly his lineup would be hit. As a precaution, forward Jaret Anderson-Dolan was activated on the 23-man roster and the rest of the traveling five-man taxi squad was readied just in case. It wasn’t until the final few hours before the game that McLellan finally got word that the rest of his regulars were clear.
7:07 p.m. — An early deficit: The game began on time, but the chaos didn’t end.
Three seconds after the opening draw, defensemen Kurtis MacDermid dropped the gloves with Wild forward Marcus Foligno. The rest of the first period was a tense affair.
“There’s going to be lots of bad blood this season because we’re playing teams so much,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said after what was already his team’s fourth meeting with the Wild on their interdivisional schedule. “In the past, I don’t think there’s a ton of bad blood with Minnesota, but I guess tonight some of that started.”
Whatever momentum MacDermid had sparked, though, the Wild quickly stole away with three first-period goals.
“We didn’t play well in the first period, that was pretty evident,” McLellan said, identifying the Wild’s second goal — a Kevin Fiala breakaway that immediately followed a hectic Kings scoring chance in front of the Wild net — as particularly preventable.
8:13 p.m. — Roy injured on check: In the second period, frustration gave way to fear after defenseman Matt Roy was shoved into the boards from behind by Fiala. Roy’s head snapped back awkwardly against the barrier and he looked clearly woozy while being helped back to the bench. Fiala was assessed a five-minute major penalty, ejected from the game and will have a hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety Friday to determine further punishment.
“You look at the replay and you’re going, ‘... That is bad. Is he OK?’” McLellan said. “And finally when he gets to the bench and he’s hauled off, you’re a little bit relieved. But you just don’t feel right after that.”
McLellan called it the kind of dangerous play that ends up on teaching videos of “basically what not to do,” adding: “I don’t even know if there’s any intent on the Fiala thing. It just happened. But we have to know by now we can’t do that.”
Roy didn’t return to the game.
9:06 p.m. — Walker’s blow to the face: In the third period, another Kings defenseman suffered a gruesome injury when Sean Walker was drilled in the face by a slap shot from Wild defenseman Matt Dumba.
“I feel so bad about that,” said Dumba, who like most players was visibly shaken after Walker skated away with a trail of blood streaming onto the ice. “It’s got to be one of the worst shots I’ve taken in my career. I feel so bad. I’ve got to go apologize after this.”
The Kings, who had used a pair of second-period power-play goals to draw within 3-2 after Roy’s exit, tried to rally again. But their shorthanded group couldn’t keep the Wild from pulling away, allowing what McLellan considered another “preventable” goal in the third to seal a 5-3 defeat.
“I thought we played harder after we lost two guys than we did before,” said McLellan, who was unable to share specifics on the status of either Roy or Walker but noted they would both be able to catch the team flight home. “But emotionally it takes a lot out of a group to see two teammates leave like that.”
11 p.m. — Going home at last: Meeting with reporters again postgame, McLellan had a confession to make.
“I was lying to you guys [earlier] when we talked about, ‘Were we going to make any changes to the roster?’” he said. “I had that information then but I didn’t know what I could share with you. That’s how messed up the day was as far as COVID goes.”
McLellan acknowledged the challenge such circumstances created: “It throws everything off,” he said.
But he closed his video conference call explaining a bigger truth too, working hard to reconcile the realities of this pandemic-altered season.
“This is the world we’re in,” he said. “We should expect this. We started the season without three players. There’s other teams that are going through it. We agreed and chose to enter this type of environment. We have to deal with it. So, move on. Let’s make the best of it. It won’t be the last time it happens. Adapt and play.”
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