April 18, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Elliott: Kings show promise in opening-season loss, but there is plenty of room for improvement

Remember hockey? Remember the Kings?

Unable to crack the 24-team playoff field assembled last summer to finish the pandemic-delayed 2019-20 season, the Kings had to wait more than 10 months to resume a rebuilding process that was gaining traction just as the NHL came to a halt. They returned to the ice on Thursday believing the worst of their struggles was over, and that they could compete for a postseason berth in the new West Division after powerhouses Vegas, Colorado, and St. Louis.

They’ll have to wait a little longer to gauge their progress. The Kings’ 4-3 overtime loss to Minnesota was a mishmash of good, energetic goals and appallingly bad passes, of flashy speed from newcomer Andreas Athanasiou and veteran Jeff Carter and dispiriting defensive plays that shouldn’t have happened, even in a season opener that followed a 10-month break.

The 3-1 lead the Kings held early in the third period was erased almost single-handedly by the brilliance of Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov. Playing in his first NHL game, Kaprizov turned Kings defenseman Olli Maatta into a revolving door more than once. On the winner, Kaprizov picked off a drop pass Kings forward Dustin Brown had left for teammate Drew Doughty and beat goaltender Jonathan Quick one-on-one 3 minutes and 47 seconds into sudden-death play.

“This one’s going to sting a little bit,” Kings captain Anze Kopitar said during a postgame webinar. “I think we gave it away in the third. I mean, credit to them. They made some good plays. But we should be able to lock that down going into the third. It can’t happen too many more times going forward.”

It should bother them, at least if they’re serious about taking that tricky next step forward as a team. “We don’t expect to score four every night. We should be able to produce three on a steady basis, but not four,” coach Todd McLellan said. “We were on the wrong end of that tonight.”

Minnesota scored first, at 16:06 of the first period, but the Kings got a boost from scoring with three seconds left in the period. Carter, who hadn’t played since last Feb. 23 and had undergone core muscle surgery in June, went to the net to clean up a rebound of a shot by Kopitar and came away with his first goal since Feb. 12.

A four-on-four goal by Athanasiou, made possible by his strong chemistry with Carter, put the Kings ahead at 7:12 of the second period. “He’s been playing unbelievable. Even in practice you can see he’s got another gear,” Athanasiou said of Carter. “He’s really got a lot of speed, so I had to get on my high horse there and just try to keep up with him. He made a great play and I think he was really good for us tonight. … He’s a beast.”

Brown gave them a 3-1 lead during a power play when his shot went off a Minnesota defender at 17:05 of the second period, and the Kings seemed to be in control. “They weren’t pretty goals. They were ugly, in-the-paint, battle-type goals, and for us, we’re looking for more this year. We didn’t get enough last year,” McLellan said.

The Kings’ Dustin Brown, center, battles for the puck during Thursday’s game.

(Associated Press)

So far, so good. The Kings killed five penalties in the period, including one disadvantage when Quick was severely tested four times. “I thought the second period was the best one today,” Kopitar said, “but we need to address what happened in the third and clean it up.”

The Wild roared back in the third as the Kings tried to regain a flow that had been interrupted by the penalty killing they had to do in the second period. Maatta and Doughty were on the ice for Minnesota’s second and third goals.

“We were just holding back a little bit too much,” Kopitar said. “Obviously, the desperation kicked in for them and we didn’t play particularly well in our own zone, didn’t make hard enough plays to get the puck out of the zone and into their zone to kind of establish the forecheck and create some amount of momentum, and it came back to bite us.”

It was one game of 56, played after an absurdly long time away and with another game against Minnesota to follow on Saturday. Don’t read too much into it, but don’t ignore the flaws, either. “It’s definitely a good feeling just to get back in the rhythm of things,” Athanasiou said. “Obviously it’s kind of a little bittersweet night. Good to be back out there, obviously unfortunate that we didn’t come out with the ‘W’ but we got one point, so you’ve got to take the positives and move forward.”

Among the positives: Quick was sharp and was blameless on Minnesota’s goals. McLellan praised the steadiness of defensemen Matt Roy and Mikey Anderson. The Maatta-Doughty pair, not so much. “I think they had some good moments and there were some obvious moments, I don’t know if you can stack it up to them as a pair. Maybe individually there were moments that one of them would like to have back,” said McLellan, who gave Doughty a whopping 29 minutes and 12 seconds’ ice time. “That’s where we’re at. They’ll be better.”

The entire team will have to be better or risk missing the playoffs and enduring another long layoff. They know it. “I think there was ups and downs throughout the game that took us on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster, ending with the down part,” McLellan said, “but there’s a lot of things we did well in the game, things that we can build off of, and certainly areas that we have to clean up.”