Jonathan Quick was the first player out of the Kings dressing room Tuesday, walking alone with his thoughts and a black backpack toward the team bus.
That actually counts as a breakthrough for Quick, the All-Star goalie, who is accompanying the team on a trip for the first time since injuring his groin in the opening period of the season.
His return to the lineup is still three weeks away, but that’s a timeline the team may want to revisit given some of the things that have taken place in their last two games, both 5-0 losses.
The latest came Tuesday when the Kings were embarrassed by the Tampa Bay Lightning and dropped a point behind Calgary in the race for the final Western Conference playoff berth.
“There’s a lot of commonality in our road game this year,” said Coach Darryl Sutter, whose team has lost 18 of 30 road games. “We have a lot of veterans that have not done much for us this year. And it’s disappointing.”
Tampa Bay’s first four goals all came on odd-man rushes, including a breakaway in which Nikita Kucherov, freed by a long pass from Vladislav Namestnikov, skated the final half of the rink alone before beating goalie Peter Budaj with a wrist shot to the stick side.
“The breakaway goal was a defenseman standing still. It’s not a team function, it’s an individual function,” Sutter said. “You can break it down by individual stats, and on the road this season it’ll pretty much tell the story.”
Sutter didn’t point to any player but the stats did: defenseman Jake Muzzin was on the ice for four of the five Tampa Bay goals, and forwards Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter were on the ice for three of them.
“We’re pretty concerned. That’s not how we play hockey,” defenseman Drew Doughty said.
“There were a couple of bad reads on today’s goals. Some bad line changes, both in today’s game and the last game. It just comes down to the will to compete. We have to be playing desperate hockey right now.”
Doughty largely absolved Budaj from much of the blame, saying the players in front of the goalie let him down. Sutter wasn’t as forgiving.
“He wasn’t very good,” Sutter said. “The first goal and the fifth goals are bad goals. He’s a veteran also. He needs to be better.”
For most of the season he has been. But after posting consecutive shutouts last week to give him a league-leading seven, Budaj has given up nine goals in his last five periods.
Fatigue may be a factor. After beginning the season in the AHL, he has played 47 games in place of the injured Quick, only 10 off his career high and the most he has played in the NHL in eight years. That may be one reason he gave up as many goals (three) in the second period Tuesday as he had given up in his first five games this month combined.
Two of those second-period goals came from Kucherov, whose scores were sandwiched around one from Gabriel Dumont. Jonathan Drouin opened the scoring in the first period and Braydon Coburn’s third-period goal off a rebound accounted for the final score, and left the Kings following Quick to the bus searching for answers.
“We have to play with more desperation,” Doughty pleaded in an empty dressing room. “We have an opportunity to get into the top three in our division and we’re [throwing] it away right now.”