How tough is the Western Conference? A team can go from first place in the conference to ninth place in just one week. Just ask the Kings, who completed that inglorious feat Saturday night.
Of course, the question could also be, how poorly are the Kings playing these days? They showed improvement in some areas Saturday night against the Chicago Blackhawks, but not nearly enough as they lost 2-1 before a sellout crowd of 18,118 at STAPLES Center.
After a shootout victory over Boston last Saturday, the Kings sat atop the conference. Since then, they have lost three consecutive games -- and six of their last seven -- and Saturday's loss dropped them from sixth place to ninth, and ahead of 10th-place San Jose only because of goal differential.
``It’s frustrating to us because we’re just so close,'' Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi said. ``We haven’t been blown out of games, we’ve been in games but we just can’t get over this little hump we’re on. If we stick with it, don’t panic and stick together, I think we’ll be a better team because of it, but we just need to keep our heads about us.''
Defensively, the Kings improved, as they allowed the Blackhawks only 23 shots on goal, but the offense slumbered again and has totaled only four goals in the last three games. Anze Kopitar's 5-on-3 goal pulled the Kings within 2-1 with five minutes left, but it wasn't nearly enough.
Credit, of course, is due the Blackhawks, who played for the second consecutive night, survived an early surge from the Kings and got strong play from goalie Corey Crawford, who made 21 saves.
The Kings, though, recorded only 12 shots on goal through two periods and, although they appeared to be playing with more desperation and energy, showed precious little ability to finish offensive chances around the net and make life difficult for Crawford for most of the game.
The bottom line is, we’re not getting enough on a consistent basis to give ourselves an opportunity to find those second and third opportunities,'' Kings coach Terry Murray said, ``or we’re getting shots and the traffic’s not there. Scoring is something, we've got to make it happen, we have to pay a price in order to score sometimes.''
Two of Chicago's big guns, Patrick Sharp and Patrick Kane, got the job done by scoring goals, while the Kings' new-look top line of Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Wayne Simmonds failed to generate much pressure at even strength, and the Kings showed spark only in spurts.
To be certain, things can change quickly in the Western Conference standings, where only four points separate second place from 13th place, but a team never wants to be on the outside of the playoff race, looking in, even if the calendar has yet to turn to December.
That's what the Kings face now, heading into a Monday showdown with rival Anaheim Ducks.
``They're a good team, and they know how to protect a lead, but we also didn't attack until maybe the last five minutes of the game,'' Kings captain Dustin Brown said. ``We didn't have the intensity. We didn't have the board battles. We didn't have a lot of things tonight. So we're going through this slump right now, and the only way to get out of it is for everyone to pull together and work hard and pull ourselves out of it. Right now, our work ethic needs to be a lot better.'
The Kings had their chances against the Blackhawks, and played fairly well during a scoreless first period. The Kings outshot the Blackhawks 9-7 in the first period and killed the period's only power play. Marian Hossa had a breakaway late in the period, but Scuderi broke it up at the last moment.
The Blackhawks broke the scoreless tie with 9:24 remaining in the second period. The Kings had a strong scoring chance, but Jack Johnson had his slap-shot attempt from the high slot blocked, and Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith pushed the puck ahead to start a 2-on-1 break. Kane passed across to Sharp, who scored to give Chicago a 1-0 lead.
``That is bad luck,'' Murray said. ``That is unbelievable. That's a 2-on-1 for us. It hits the shaft of (Jack Johnson's) stick. If the pass goes to our player, that defenseman is sliding, he's below the goal line and it's a tap-in goal. Jack comes in and looks for the shot, and unfortunately it gets blocked and they have a 2-on-1 going the other way.
``So it's not deflating. It was a lucky break, and those are things you just have to absorb. I didn't think that we let up in our play after that particular goal, but we didn't elevate it high enough, either, to say, `Let's really move on and get something going the other way.'''
The Kings didn't get much of anything going, though, and were credited with only three shots on goal in the second period.
Shortly after a Kings power play ended, early in the third period, the Blackhawks took a two-goal lead at the 1:06 mark. Kane went to the net and the puck appeared to deflect off his midsection and past Quick. Tomas Kopecky and Sharp picked up assists.
The Kings appeared to finally find some spark, with less than seven minutes remaining in the third period, when Brown smashed Chicago's Viktor Stalberg into the boards, prompting a 5-on-5 battle that ultimately resulted in a Kings power play and then a 5-on-3 advantage.
The Kings got on the board, and pulled within one goal, by scoring on that two-man advantage with 5:02 remaining in the third period. Kopitar shot, through traffic, and scored to cut Chicago's lead to 2-1. Johnson and Ryan Smyth picked up assists.
With their net empty in the final 90 seconds, the Kings had chances but couldn't tie the game.
``We had a good last six or seven minutes there,'' Scuderi said, ``but it’s certainly not enough to win a hockey game especially against a very good opponent.''
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