It’s been a busy three weeks for the New Jersey Devils, who fired their coach, lost five of their next eight games, then headed out on a three-game West Coast swing without future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, who has the flu.
All of which left Wednesday’s game with the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings looking more like a test of character than a competitive hockey game.
And that’s exactly what it proved to be — for the Kings, who couldn’t overcome a combination of bad luck and even worse play in a 5-3 loss that was more one-sided on the ice than it was on the scoreboard.
How bad was it?
The Devils’ first two goals came off the skate of a Kings defenseman.
The Devils scored three times — against two different goaltenders — during a 68-second span midway through the second period. New Jersey had scored as many as three goals in a game just five times in its previous 18 outings. And their five goals on the night matched their best output since the season-opener, when they had six.
Meanwhile, the Kings, who were booed off the ice after the second period, have allowed 21 goals in their last five games. That total would be even worse but the only win in those five games was a shutout.
“You give up five goals you can’t say they’re lucky goals,” Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said. “You give up four, you’re going to get beat. That’s real.”
Forward Justin Williams agreed.
“Yeah we got some bad breaks,” he said. “But emotionally we weren’t there to grind out a game 2-1. Sometimes you feel great, sometimes you don’t. But you still find ways to get wins and we aren’t even doing that.”
And as if all that’s not bad enough, there’s this: The collapse comes during an important 31/2-week stretch for the Kings, who are battling to keep their heads above water in the playoff race.
Wednesday’s game was the fifth of seven in a row at home, where the Kings have the league’s fifth-best record. Shortly after this month’s All-Star game, they head out for five games on the road – where they have the league’s fifth-worst record.
The point being, the Kings have to win at home. But they behind fell behind, 1-0, in the waning seconds of a sloppy first period in which they had almost as many power plays (three) as shots (five). And though that goal was credited to Steve Bernier on a power play, the puck actually bounced into the net off the skate of the Kings’ Matt Greene, who was locked in a wrestling match with the Devils’ winger at the edge of the cease.
The Kings came out with some urgency in the second period, scoring 74 seconds after the intermission on a goal by Dustin Brown, his first in 18 games — and his first at Staples Center since Nov. 18.
The tie lasted less than eight minutes before Bernier picked up another gift goal, this time on an errant puck that hit the skate of a prone Drew Doughty and deflected past Kings goalie Martin Jones.
Jones was pulled 23 seconds later after he gave another weak goal — this one to Martin Havlat — that gave New Jersey a 3-1 lead.
The Devils showed no more respect for Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, however, with Mike Cammalleri and Michael Ryder beating him to give New Jersey five goals on 15 shots through 40 minutes.
Greene said the Kings need to rededicate themselves if they hope to stay in a playoff race that appears to have started without them.
“We just need more effort and a willingness to get it done,” he said. “I’m speaking for myself, but that’s what has to get better.
“We have to get points every time we can. We’re struggling to hang on to playoff spot. We need every point.”
Jones came back to start the third period and finished strong, stopping five shots. But the only offense the Kings could muster behind him came on Marian Gaborik’s team-leading 15th goal of the season on a back-hander from the slot 7:16 into the period, and from Williams, whose’ goal with 62 seconds to play did little more than change the final score.
Afterward, defenseman Alec Martinez struggled to find his own take on the Kings’ struggles. Turns out, it’s a little bit of everything.
“It’s a matter of making better decisions in our own end. And capitalizing on our opportunities, playing a bit more physical,” he said.
Times staff writer Helene Elliott contributed to this story.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11