On Wednesday, the Kings’ night began auspiciously, much as their season did.
Anze Kopitar snapped his goal drought with a deft redirection from in tight. Pierre-Luc Dubois even got in on the act in a livelier performance, as did Adrian Kempe, while they built a 3-1 lead off their two prettier goals.
Then they surrendered four unanswered tallies to the lowly Buffalo Sabres, eliciting full-throated boos more apt for a bit more hardcore sports town like Detroit or Philadelphia.
Next up, they’ll contend with the Colorado Avalanche and the elevated peaks of Denver on Friday, two nights after being forced to ponder whether or not their campaign had hit rock bottom or not after a 12th loss in 14 games.
“Let’s hope so. Obviously, it’s not very good. There’s a few OT losses. Those are pity points, but they still count, so we’ll take those, but yeah, we’ve got to correct stuff and get back on the right track in a hurry before it’s too late,” Kopitar said.
Though some optimists have pointed to the fact that the Kings have something of an open path in terms of quality of opponents the rest of the way, they’ve lost their last two games to the franchise approaching the longest playoff drought in pro sports, Buffalo, and the worst team by record in the NHL this season, the San Jose Sharks.
Not even a marshmallow factory seemed capable of providing this iteration of the Kings a soft landing, much less against an Avs team that has lost three of its last five games to the Kings but had previously captured nine straight meetings and won the 2022 Stanley Cup. In 2021, a pair of whippings were so severe that the Kings were too despondent to speak after the second game.
That despondency is returning, but the Kings are more vocal this time around. Kopitar, Coach Todd McLellan and alternate captain Drew Doughty were each bursting out of their bubble wrap to give frank opinions on an increasingly dire situation.
“Honestly, it’s felt like the bottom-out for a while now,” Doughty admitted after falling from the cusp of contention toward the playoff bubble in the span of less than a month.
Doughty and Kopitar, the lone figures other than largely ornamental fourth-liner Trevor Lewis from the championship teams of 2012 and 2014, were less apt to mince words after the loss in which Buffalo shredded their neutral zone like an industrial saw through soft cheese. Doughty was also clear in defending McLellan, placing the onus inside the dressing room.
“It’s not about the coaching staff, it’s about the players. I think the coaches on our team have done a great job,” Doughty said.
On the same night when the Kings turned in the final fiasco on Figueroa of their homestand (they won’t return until Feb. 10 against Edmonton), Colorado’s Nathan MacKinnon was thriving elsewhere.
He turned in a natural hat trick as part of a four-goal game against the typically stout Washington Capitals. The Kings can only hope he used up his mojo for the moment as a similar effort might have been record-breaking against the effort they turned in against Buffalo, which saw them commit self-inflicted errors that ranged from quixotic to suicidal.
“The stupidity that went into that loss was unexplainable,” McLellan said.
Even if they contain MacKinnon, a short-list candidate for the MVP and the NHL scoring leader, they’ll have to contend with perennial Norris Trophy candidate Cale Makar (he’s second to only Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes in points by a defenseman) and Kings killer Mikko Rantanen, who had five points against Washington. The Finnish winger’s 36 points in 27 games against the Kings represent his highest career total against one franchise and in the fewest games (he has 36 points in 28 games against Arizona). He torched them for four points in the season opener, which Colorado won 5-2, and assisted on Colorado’s only goal in a 4-1 loss to the Kings on Dec. 3.
KINGS AT COLORADO
When: Friday, 6 p.m.
Where: Ball Arena, Denver
TV: Bally Sports West