Column: Kings forced to fight from a hole without Doughty
The Kings nearly got by without Drew Doughty on Friday. But the longest playoff game in their history ended with a 2-1 double-overtime loss to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, whose storybook season rolled on while the Kings’ season is now two losses from concluding.
It’s impossible for the Kings to replace Drew Doughty and all he does. He’s their emotional leader, their most durable and talented defenseman and an offensive sparkplug, in addition to being the NHL’s ice-time leader during the regular season. He’s a big-game player, and they missed him in their biggest game this season.
With Doughty serving a one-game suspension Friday for what the league’s Department of Player Safety ruled was an illegal blow to the head of Las Vegas forward William Carrier during the Golden Knights’ series-opening victory, the Kings had no choice but to piece together their defense without him. And in every sense “piece together” describes what they had to do, given that they also had to go without injured regulars Derek Forbort and Jake Muzzin.
“He’s the best defenseman in the world so you’re not going to replace him with one player,” winger Dustin Brown said before the game, “but it’s a good thing there’s six guys on the ice at a time.”
They got valiant efforts from defensemen Alec Martinez, who played a career-high 44 minutes and 51 seconds and blocked eight shots, Dion Phaneuf, who was credited with six blocks in 33:44, and steady Oscar Fantenberg. During one frenzied shift late in the second sudden-death period, forward Trevor Lewis blocked two shots despite losing his stick and being in obvious pain. But on Vegas’ 56th shot at a poised Jonathan Quick, Erik Haula slipped the puck home 15:23 into the second overtime to give the Golden Knights a sweep of the first two games at jubilant T-Mobile Arena.
Like so many visitors to Las Vegas, the Kings left the city empty-handed. But their performance was gutsy given their circumstances and their shaky start Friday.
Initially, their play in their own end was often chaotic. They gave the puck away too much. They were outshot. And the inexperience of playoff rookies Kevin Gravel and LaDue was painfully obvious in the early going. Gravel struggled but LaDue scored the goal that brought them even in the second period on a long shot that deflected off a Vegas defender, and Phaneuf and Martinez were tireless.
The Kings learned on Thursday afternoon they wouldn’t have Doughty for Game 2, no matter that they disputed the ruling.
“Drew Doughty is the best player at his position in the world and he defended that play exactly the way we would expect him to defend that play,” Coach John Stevens said Friday morning. “And the other thing I’ll say to that is as long as I’m on Earth, I’ll agree to disagree with that decision.”
Stevens dipped deeply into the Darryl Sutter sarcasm barrel when asked how he would deal with Doughty’s absence.
“The staff got together after the announcement and what we decided to do is when the game starts tonight we’re going to put two [defensemen] on the ice,” Stevens said with a straight face. “We get a power play or a penalty kill, we’ll put two D on the ice.
“We checked with the league and we’re pretty sure that they’re going to keep the puck the same size and Vegas is only going to be allowed to put five guys on the ice. Unless they pull their goalie, they can put a sixth attacker on the ice. So I think we’re good to go.”
The Kings weren’t at their best, but it was the best they could do in a depleted state.
“He’s obviously a big part of this team, but stuff like that happens,” center Anze Kopitar said Friday morning. “I think each and every one of us in here is going to have to step up and give it a little extra to fill in those shoes. They’re big shoes to fill, but we also have all the confidence in the guys in the room that can do it.”
As this group learned during previous playoff journeys — notably the 26-game trek to win the Cup in 2014 — adversity often is only a deflection or bad bounce or NHL suspension away. Martinez said he expected his teammates to rise to the challenge of playing without Doughty in a game he called a must-win. They rose to the occasion, but not quite to the level of the Golden Knights.
The Kings will welcome Doughty back to the lineup Sunday at Staples Center, but even that might not be enough. They still must find a way to get to Vegas goalie Marc-Andre Fleury after scoring only one goal in the first seven-plus periods, and this series will slip away if they don’t make their home ice as big an advantage as the Golden Knights made it in the first two games here.
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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