The Kings are relying on creative math to persuade themselves that being steamrolled 14-2 by the Edmonton Oilers the past two games and seems giving up the lead in the teams’ first-round Stanley Cup playoff series isn’t as bad as it.
Or as bad as it looked Friday, when the Oilers drew on their balance and ramped-up physicality to rout the Kings 8-2 and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series, which resumes Sunday at Crypto.com Arena.
According to the Kings’ calculations, six Edmonton goals in Game 2 plus eight more in Game 3 added up to two losses. Two uncharacteristically disjointed defeats, absolutely, but still two. Nothing more. Not disaster, not the obliteration of the identity the Kings labored to create this season.
“I think for myself you kind of take the scores, the individual scores of the game, and kind of throw them out,” center Blake Lizotte said Saturday after the Kings practiced in El Segundo.
“I look at it as a series that’s 2-1 and I think any team that’s sitting at home right now would be killing [to be in] a 2-1 playoff series, so I think for us it’s just important to keep that mindset and emphasize how important that next one is.”
They have to think that way, or they might as well not show up Sunday. Clearly, they’re facing the biggest test of a season filled with growing pains and challenges as their veterans vie for one more kick at the Cup and the kids continue to seek consistency in a fast and character-testing league.
The Oilers have dictated the pace the last two games, forcing the Kings to play a chance-for-chance game they can’t possibly win. Eleven Oilers got at least one point in Game 3, led by Evander Kane’s hat trick and two goals each from Zach Hyman and third-line center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. The Oilers’ power play is five for 11 in the series, while the Kings are one for 12 and have conceded a short-handed goal.
The Oilers’ scoring depth has extended to their defensemen, another edge over the Kings. Edmonton defensemen contributed six assists Friday for a series total of one goal and 13 points; The Kings’ defensemen have produced one assist by Alex Edler and one by Sean Durzi in their series-opening 4-3 victory at Edmonton.
In a classic good news/bad news scenario, the Kings on Friday held Connor McDavid to two assists and Leon Draisaitl to a goal and an assist but were swamped anyway by the Oilers’ second and third lines.
“They’re a complete team, and we have to be a complete team to beat them. We can’t just focus on two players,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said.
Focusing on their new math helps. Asked if they have a lot to correct, team captain Anze Kopitar said the fixes go beyond strategy and to mindset.
“I think most importantly it’s just mentally, really, because we let it snowball a couple times now,” he said. “Obviously you don’t want to get scored on 14 times in two games. There’s some stuff that we can look at that we did pretty good, too, so it’s not all negative and the bottom line is that we’re down 2-1 in the series.”
At this point, the Kings are who they are. No one is going to suddenly develop the unerring aim of a 40-goal scorer. No one is going to wake up Sunday and become a power-play quarterback. Their defense isn’t going to become big and fearsome overnight. Those holes must be addressed this summer through trades or free agency or continued development of the talent they’ve stockpiled. Based on the kids’ performance this season and under the playoff spotlight, general manager Rob Blake and his staff might have more holes to plug than they thought they would.
Making the playoffs was a significant achievement for the Kings. Being competitive in postseason play is providing to be a tougher task. They did it in Game 1, controlling the tempo while both teams battled nerves. They have no choice but to somehow impose their will again Sunday.
“What’s different in the playoffs is that you’re given a seven-game lifeline and after each night you play it shrinks or gets extended a little bit,” McLellan said. “During the regular season you get 82 lives and you move on, and there’s some nights that you can die and then recover. I don’t know if that’s a good analogy to be using, but in the playoffs a win propels the confidence, makes everybody feel good. A loss does the other, and for us the mindset was as important today as the structure and the physical part of the game.”
Kopitar remembered when a group of promising young players who had been entrusted with the franchise’s future made their playoff debut together and exited in the first round. Twice, in fact, before they won the Cup in 2012.
“It’s a learning curve,” he said. “Everybody’s learning but learning on the fly, which is, I can assure you, it’s not easy.
Like I said, we’re down 2-1. Nothing else matters.”
Only the math.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.