Only a few players and the assistant coaches were on the ice Tuesday morning as a somber Dean Lombardi watched at rinkside.
Most of the Kings had taken part in a meeting and left their chilly El Segundo practice facility for the sizzling temperatures outside. Their general manager stayed indoors to watch the youngsters and extra players, maybe for one of the last times this season.
The team Lombardi built to contend for a second Stanley Cup title in three seasons is one loss from elimination, which can occur Wednesday at Staples Center if the Ducks win Game 6 of the teams’ Western Conference semifinal playoff series. If the Kings had played their best while the Ducks won three straight games to take the series lead, Lombardi could live with it. What nagged at him Tuesday was the Kings’ streakiness and his certainty they haven’t played as well as they can.
“I don’t think any of them thought even in Games 1 and 2 that we played our game,” he said of the Kings’ series-opening victories over the Ducks. “There’s been pockets of it but not the consistency that we know we’re capable of. That’s the thing.”
Defenseman Alec Martinez said after the Ducks’ 4-3 victory Monday at Anaheim that he and his teammates hadn’t played “Kings hockey,” whose trademark is defensive diligence, relentless forechecking and sure puck-handling. He wasn’t wrong.
But much of that comes from the Ducks not allowing the Kings to play the tight, low-scoring games Coach Darryl Sutter preaches. As Sutter himself noted, the Ducks scored 266 goals in the regular season, second-most in the NHL. They know how to finish and they don’t usually need many chances to succeed.
In addition, injuries that have taken Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr out of the Kings’ defense corps have thrown other players into crucial situations and given them more ice time than they’d otherwise get. That has taken a toll on the Kings’ penalty killing — the Ducks’ power play is five for 12 over the last four games — and overall cohesion.
“I think that’s individual stuff,” Sutter said. “Normally if you don’t play that way you get to watch up where it’s cold. But we’re not in that position right now. You’ve got to play.”
Lombardi sees some psychological factors affecting the team too. After the Kings’ 2012 Cup triumph, he sought advice from general managers and coaches in other sports about how to handle being the defending champions and what they did to keep their respective teams on an elite level. It would be difficult, they told him. He suspected they were right. Now, he knows it.
“The challenge of staying on top and consistently competing with the big boys, the challenge for the club is very different than building,” Lombardi said. “I said that two years ago, for all of us, general manager, coach and players … I talked to all those people. They said, ‘You’re not going to understand it until you go through it.’
“We’ve got to all learn from it, to get that consistency.”
There isn’t much time to do that and end the familiar refrain voiced by several players, including winger Marian Gaborik.
“We haven’t played our best hockey and I’m sure everybody’s going to leave everything out there” on Wednesday, Gaborik said. “I’m confident that we can get back to Anaheim.”
The Kings have been through this before, having fought off elimination four times against San Jose in the first round. While losing the third game of that series, in overtime, the Kings found accomplishments to build on and launch a comeback. Their best players were their best, most effective players. And the Sharks lived up to their reputation as postseason underachievers whose big players vanished as pressure mounted. That’s not true of the Ducks.
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, held to one assist in this series, acknowledged he hasn’t played “my absolute best,” and vowed to reach that level Wednesday. “We know exactly what we have to do and there’s no excuses but to do it,” he said.
Lombardi said he still believes in his team, as much as he wishes it had learned the virtues of consistency.
“I never lose faith in them. That’s the one thing I come back to when we’re in this,” he said. “I know deep down they care. Even when we were down 3-0 or whatever. They’ve shown me too many times that they’ll figure it out.”