On the rare occasions that the Kings play with the unshakable resolve and resilience they showed in rallying for a 4-3 victory over the St. Louis Blues at Staples Center on Monday, one question inevitably arises:
Why haven’t they done that more often?
Interim coach Willie Desjardins wonders the same thing. “I think you always do that as a coach because if you see it once, it’s, ‘Why can’t you see it all the time?’” he said. “We’ve talked in the room. Those exact words have been said. We’ve shown we can do it at different times. We just have to get more consistent.”
The Kings, who don’t play again until Feb. 2, began the All-Star break and their bye week ranked 27th in the 31-team NHL. Before they departed for vacation or just a mental escape they gained the small consolation of shedding some of the stench of their 7-1 embarrassment at Colorado on Saturday and staying within eight points of the second Western Conference wildcard playoff spot. But winning might not be the best thing for them long-term. The expanding “Lose for Hughes” camp believes that the Kings would be better off losing in order to enhance their odds of winning the draft lottery and choosing American-born phenom forward Jack Hughes, and there’s good reason to be on that side. They need infusions of youth and skill and the draft is the best way to do that.
The Kings, built on the mistaken premise that an aging, slow core has another Stanley Cup championship in it, have benefited from the dramatic dropoff in talent among teams not among the top three in the Pacific Division. For the most part, opponents' stumbles have kept the Kings within distant view of a playoff berth.
“It would be better if we were in the playoffs,” goaltender Jonathan Quick said after a 33-save effort on his 33rd birthday produced his 302nd victory. He passed his childhood idol, Mike Richter, and ranks fourth in wins among American-born goalies. “We’ll take care of ourselves a little bit the next week and a half and come back ready to win some hockey games,” Quick said.
Making up ground is difficult because of the loser point awarded in overtime and shootouts. It's especially challenging for the Kings, who average a league-low 2.26 goals a game.
“We put together a streak of four, five, we get in the mix. You just can’t drop five,” said center Anze Kopitar, who had a goal and an assist Monday, joining Brendan Leipsic (two assists) and Tyler Toffoli (goal and an assist). “It’s definitely salvageable but it’s going to take a lot of guts and a lot of work.”
The Blues built a 2-0 lead on Mackenzie MacEachern’s rebound at 10:31 of the first period and Oskar Sundqvist’s finish of a feed from Ivan Barbashev at 18:49, but Toffoli took a pass from Leipsic and scored on a back-door play with 56 seconds left before intermission.
“That was a big goal at the end of the first,” Desjardins said. “It’s something we talked about, how we respond, and I think the group was pretty determined after the last game that they wanted a little bit more out of tonight.”
The Kings pulled even during a two-man advantage, at 7:15 of the second period. Drew Doughty, who was high-sticked by Blues defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, finished a passing play with Kopitar by scoring from the top of the right circle, his fifth goal — all on the power play — this season. Dustin Brown and Kopitar teamed up to give the Kings a 3-2 lead at 18:16 of the second period, with Brown threading a pass to Kopitar down low, but the Blues tied the score on a power-play goal by Ryan O’Reilly six minutes into the third period, while Dion Phaneuf served a needless cross-checking penalty.
Leipsic, a waiver-draft pickup, showed a nice touch again when he set up defenseman Paul LaDue with a pass that LaDue settled on his stick before firing it past goalie Jordan Binnington at 9:53. “That was unbelievable,” LaDue said. “It was a huge team win and we really needed that one, so it felt pretty good.”
There were strong individual elements in the game, but it didn’t make up for months of flat efforts, indefensible letdowns and all the other missteps that have put the Kings in the precarious position they occupy. “One game isn’t going to. It’s a process,” defenseman Alec Martinez said.
General manager Rob Blake and team president Luc Robitaille have been notably silent about what has gone wrong. The break now gives them time to decide if they’ll take the Lose for Hughes route or continue to fool themselves into thinking this team is good enough to win again.