HELENE ELLIOTT

Scoring woes aside, Kings' defense could have bailed them out

Question after Game 4 loss to Blackhawks is how big a toll has the Kings' rugged play taken on the tired team.

The specifics behind the Kings' 3-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Thursday, their first loss at Staples Center since March 23 and perhaps their final home game this season, were painfully clear.

They made bad line changes that contributed to two goals. Had defensive breakdowns that once were uncharacteristic but have been occurring with more frequency as they drag their tired bodies deeper into the Western Conference finals. Made too many turnovers in the neutral zone, where games are often lost or won.

From a big-picture perspective, there's one overriding reason they could come home from Chicago on Saturday with no games left on their schedule and no chance to repeat as Stanley Cup champions.

They're not scoring enough goals or coming up with the won't-be-denied victories in battles along the boards they were winning against St. Louis and San Jose. They maintained their average of two goals per game on Thursday but made enough mistakes to give up three goals to a Blackhawks team that smoothly compensated for the absence of vital but suspended defenseman Duncan Keith.

Goaltender Jonathan Quick was less than perfect Thursday, but it's unfair to ask him to pitch a shutout every game. When the Kings stray from the cohesive defensive game that has been their foundation, two goals won't be good enough to take this series to a sixth game at home next Monday or a seventh game next Wednesday at Chicago.

"It's enough if we're playing well defensively and doing the right things that way. But we haven't been, obviously," defenseman Drew Doughty said.

"We've been giving up too many goals, again relying on Quick to make too many big saves, and we're not playing the right way, not playing the way this team is capable of. When we're only getting two goals, we can easily win games with Quickie back there and our defensive team."

Nothing came easily to them on Thursday — not even putting any concerted pressure on the Blackhawks late in the game, when their defense might have been vulnerable after spreading out Keith's minutes among the rest of the defense corps.

With the game and control of the series hanging in the balance, the Kings got two shots on Corey Crawford's net in the third period. Two. Anze Kopitar had one shot on goal. Dustin Brown had none.

The rugged, hard-hitting style that has carried the Kings this far has battered and bruised them badly enough to possibly keep them from advancing further. When this is all over, we will learn which players were getting limbs and shoulders taped up or numbed simply in order to stay upright. Kopitar and Brown are sure to be on that list. The only thing worse than learning they were hurt would be learning that they weren't.

It's also worth considering that General Manager Dean Lombardi's two trades this season shored up the defense, while Coach Darryl Sutter constantly shifted pieces around in order to find some scoring from the left side.

Losing top-six defensemen Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene to injuries forced Lombardi to focus on improving what was left of the defense, and his acquisitions of Keaton Ellerby and Robyn Regehr cost the Kings little and got them to the playoffs. But also adding a scoring left wing might have made a difference now, with Kopitar and Brown close to being non-factors on offense and no guarantee about the return of Mike Richards, who was the Kings' top postseason scorer when he suffered a concussion in Game 1 against Chicago.

Those theories should be discussed when the season is over, a date the Kings — who are 1-7 on the road — hope they can postpone with a win on Saturday.

"That's got to be our only focus now," Brown said. "We can't look back and change anything that happened tonight. We know what we did wrong. It's a matter of going out there and finding a way to win on the road You can throw records out — home record, away record — throw them out the window, when it comes to a game like this."

They'll also have to throw out that two goals-per-game average, and that might be a lot tougher to accomplish.

"We've just got to win one game," Quick said. "That's all we've got to do."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

 

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