The Kings fended off elimination four times in their first-round playoff series against San Jose, sticking together when it would have been easy to fracture, playing an ever-tighter defensive game that complemented Jonathan Quick's confident goaltending while they picked apart the emotionally fragile Sharks.
The Kings' 4-3 loss to the Ducks on Monday at Honda Center in Game 5 of their Western Conference semifinal series left them facing elimination for the fifth time this spring. They know the territory, certainly, but the Ducks are not the hollow-hearted Sharks and aren't likely to fumble under pressure as the Sharks did.
So, somehow, some way, the Kings must formulate a way to make another comeback in Game 6, to be played Wednesday at Staples Center. And then, they hope, return to Anaheim for a seventh game Friday.
"That's the plan," Kings center Anze Kopitar said Monday in the subdued locker room. "Now we've got to go home and win a home game. That's the bottom line. There's no secret. We want to come back here and give ourselves a chance."
They made too many turnovers early in Monday's game, too many unforced errors that put them in too big a hole to give themselves a reasonable chance to win. And so, their postseason streakiness continued at a time when consistency is prized: They lost the first three to San Jose before winning the next four and the first two against the Ducks. They've now lost three straight. A fourth ends their season.
"There's no secret recipe," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "It's a matter of coming out and executing our Xs and O's, and the other side of it is the emotional, the stuff you can't really teach."
Then there's the stuff you can teach, like limiting turnovers and being more poised with the puck. Pressured early by the Ducks, the Kings gave up an unusual number of odd-man rushes and surrendered the puck in the neutral zone more than they can afford.
That must change for them to keep this season going.
"We've got to play Kings hockey," said defenseman Alec Martinez, who was guilty of several of those turnovers.
"I don't think we've really been too happy with quite a few of our games in this series. We've got to definitely play better in the next game. It's attention to detail."
The biggest edges the Kings had coming into this series were their goaltending and defense. Quick is less than two years removed from being the most valuable player on their Stanley Cup-winning team and he became a forbidding sight for the Sharks, allowing only two goals in the last three games. His teammates were solid in front of him and held firm — at least at first — when defenseman Willie Mitchell went down with an undisclosed injury.
The Ducks' goaltending situation was uncertain, a choice between rookie Frederik Andersen and an erratic Jonas Hiller. Their strength was their depth and their scoring ability. They got past Dallas by playing both Andersen and Hiller, with Hiller getting the win in the clincher after Andersen couldn't finish the job.
How things have changed. The Kings' defense has been worn down by losing Mitchell and, during this series, losing Robyn Regehr to an injury. Quick is seeing shots that are more dangerous, even if those shots aren't coming in great numbers. And while the Ducks' depth and scoring ability have proven to be assets, they've also come up with a new strength in goal in rookie John Gibson, who followed up his 28-save shutout in Game 4 by making 39 saves Monday in Game 5.
"I don't think it was a question of if we get good goaltending. I think it was a question of who was going to give it to us," Ducks forward Nick Bonino said.
"Gibby's just the latest in a line of guys who have come in … He stood tall in there and made big saves at the end, and that's what we need in the playoffs."
The Ducks were respectful to the Kings, fully aware of that remarkable first-round rally.
"That's a pretty good team over there," said winger Devante Smith-Pelly, who scored the Ducks' second and third goals and brought life to the team's top line alongside Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. "You can't give them too many chances to get off the mat."
Brown found reason for optimism — that the Kings got a few goals against rookie Gibson, even if a few goals wasn't quite enough.
"He's been really good. He made a lot of really big saves for them tonight," Brown said. "I thought we did a better job with [creating] traffic, and as a result we score goals, so it's getting more of that in the next game."
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