The Kings tried to reestablish their identity Tuesday and climb back into their first-round playoff series against San Jose. However, the resilient but still-flawed performance now leaves them facing an early end to their season.
And, maybe, to an era.
It wasn't enough that they shook off the two beatdowns they had absorbed in the first two games at San Jose and put together strong stretches Tuesday at Staples Center. Patrick Marleau's backhander off the stick of Kings defenseman Slava Voynov 6 minutes and 20 seconds into overtime gave San Jose a 4-3 victory and put the Kings on the brink of being swept out of the playoffs.
"I don't know about a sense of shock. It's certainly not satisfying," center Anze Kopitar said. "We've all won here and we know how it feels and we've been on the other end and we've lost, and now we've got to regroup and take it one game at a time and we'll see."
Only three NHL teams have overcome 3-0 deficits in a best-of-seven playoff series. Maybe the Kings have it in them. As Coach Darryl Sutter said, their best players were better than they had been in the two losses at San Jose. "That was for sure. That was noticeable," he said. "Those are the guys that have got to pull us. That will give us a chance next game, right?"
Maybe. But the Sharks' sustained depth —11 players have scored at least one goal — and their ability to pound away on the Kings' battered defense make a miracle unlikely.
"It's a tough hill," Sutter said, "and we won't go quietly away, that's for sure."
They're not only fighting for their season, they might be fighting to stay together as a group.
This team has stayed largely intact for five or six years, led by a core that has grown up together and lifted the Stanley Cup together but now must consider the possibility it will be broken up in order to fix the weaknesses that led to this stunning playoff deficit.
General Manager Dean Lombardi carefully lifted this team out of the rubble of failure and away from the negative influences of a losing culture, nurturing a group he assembled by emphasizing scouting and deliberate player development. He was rewarded with a team that formed a strong bond and exhibited good, self-policing chemistry.
Key players Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and Voynov were the product of drafting and development. So were role players Trevor Lewis, Dwight King, and, more recently, Jake Muzzin. Using draft picks and new assets, Lombardi traded for Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Later, he added Robyn Regehr. Willie Mitchell was a smart free-agent signing.
But while it's great that they get along and sacrifice for each other, their struggles against the Sharks suggest this mix needs some stirring and new ingredients.
"Every team's quick now in this league. It's a fast league. It's getting faster every year," Stoll said after Tuesday's morning skate.
The Kings aren't faster or deeper than the Sharks, and the Kings' only chance to win is to play those 3-2 and 2-1 games Sutter loves.
The Sharks got better and faster. The Blues got bigger and improved their goaltending. The Ducks also have added depth.
The Kings' defense, never quite able to recover from losing Rob Scuderi to free agency last summer, became creakier as the season progressed. That's partly a product of the physical style the Kings play, but the costs appear to be outweighing the benefits.
Drew Doughty appears to be still hampered by the shoulder injury he suffered late in the season. Mitchell has labored at times. So has Regehr.
The Kings rebounded several times Tuesday, taking leads of 2-1 and 3-2 but still falling short. "It was better," Kopitar said of the Kings' effort compared to the first two games, "but still not good enough."
Time is running out on their season and, maybe, on this group.
They'll always have their 2012 Cup triumph, the sweet memory of rising from the No. 8 seed to dominate every playoff series they won and bring indescribable joy to fans who had suffered through decades of disappointment. But with a young team and a stud goaltender in Quick, that seemed like only the beginning of an era.
Now it seems near an end, because the mix simply isn't right anymore.
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