Now that the ball has dropped on 2024, the Kings would love to get it rolling again following a lukewarm stretch that has seen them play .500 hockey while coming up short in measuring-stick games.
Their first bite at the apple will come against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday night at Crypto.com Arena.
Toronto will be the first of seven consecutive Eastern Conference opponents for the Kings, who just completed a string of commensurate length against divisional foes. Though they won four of those games, three of their victories were against teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs last season, including two over lowly San Jose. Meanwhile, they lost both bouts against bonafide heavyweights, with one-goal losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and Edmonton Oilers.
Their 4-2-1 run through the division was part of a broader 4-4-2 stretch (which also saw them lose to the Stanley Cup-contending New York Rangers), though the small sample might serve to illustrate how dominant the Kings were at times earlier in the season as much as it highlights their recent hiccups.
“They’re tight games, we’re playing against real good opponents … we weren’t gonna play .800 hockey the whole year, it just never has happened,” Coach Todd McLellan said. “Other teams are adapting to us a little bit too, but I don’t think we’re playing poorly. I think we’re right there.”
The Kings and Edmonton Oilers have been thorns in each other’s sides and Edmonton was once again just a bit sharper in a 3-2 shootout victory on Saturday night at Crypto.com Arena. Though the Kings turned in a domineering first period and performed well five-on-five, the Oilers’ skill reigned once more. Their three shootout goals, one four-on-four tally and power-play marker were sufficient in the first meeting since last year’s playoff series, in which Edmonton converted on an is-that-a-typo clip of 56.3% across the six games they needed to eliminate the Kings.
“[Defending Edmonton’s power play] is a tough task, regardless of how you play. They’ve been together for so long, and they have an answer for everything,” said McLellan, who guided the Oilers for most of the first four seasons of captain Connor McDavid’s career.
As the Oilers clicked, one resurgent component of the Kings’ lineup began to falter. The line of Pierre-Luc Dubois, Alex Laferriere and Arthur Kaliyev had begun to hit its stride, but they were broken up mid-game against Edmonton. The move was effectively a demotion for Kaliyev, and McLellan provided a terse but all-encompassing rationale.
“His whole night,” McLellan said.
McLellan also responded with a single-word affirmation when asked if Kaliyev, 22, could no longer be having such disappointing outings at this stage of his career. The Kings did not practice Sunday, so there was no firm indication of any lineup reconfigurations.
From Kaliyev’s rough night to a player who has received ongoing scrutiny – particularly of late, since he was purportedly brought in to counter the depth, skill and heft of teams like Edmonton and Vegas – McLellan felt Dubois had been coming into his own.
“P.L. has played his best hockey in the last four or five games. He really looks determined,” McLellan said. “He’s handling the puck. He looks confident. There’s less frustration. I think he feels good about himself. We said at the beginning of the year that it was going to take some time. But I do feel like it’s coming.”
If Kings fans are getting impatient with Dubois after about 40% of a season, they won’t get much sympathy from the Toronto faithful. After winning championships Nos. 10, 11, 12 and 13 in the 1960s, they’ve gone 56 years and counting without another.
They’ve also lost three straight games and five of their past six, sliding to 17-10-7 on the year. That hasn’t been because of William Nylander or Auston Matthews, however. Matthews leads the NHL with 29 goals. Nylander is in the process of securing quite the bag for himself in the final year of his contract, racking up 48 points to tie for fourth league-wide.
TORONTO AT KINGS
When: Tuesday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Crypto.com Arena
TV: Hulu, ESPN+