The defense rests for the Kings
Team’s sloppy play is on display as Tampa Bay rolls with four first-period goals
The signs were there all along.
But in the flush of the Kings’ early scoring success and their hot start — led by the goaltending acrobatics of feisty Jonathan Quick —it was easy to overlook that their defensive performances were beginning to unravel.
It didn’t seem to matter to anyone other than coach John Stevens, a former defenseman who was in charge of the team’s defense corps before he was promoted to the top job last summer, that they were giving up more scoring chances in dangerous areas than they should have been allowing, because Quick had stopped nearly 94% of all the shots he faced. And it wasn’t a big deal that the Kings had so many slow starts because they had assembled the NHL’s thirdbest record and had repeatedly showed they could come back and could outscore almost anyone. It’s a big deal now. The Kings were flatfooted and mostly defenseless through the early and middle stages of their 5-2 loss Thursday night to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had played the night before in San Jose.
The simple play occurred about halfway through the game, when the Kings looked like they had a clear path to get out of their zone, and maybe out of a hole.
Rookie Michael Amadio grabbed the puck as Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman momentarily retreated, then pounced on Amadio and took it from him to keep the possession going.
And so it seemed for much of a 5-2 Kings loss Thursday at Staples Center — not quite men versus boys but at times two elite teams operating at different levels.
Hedman, a Norris Trophy finalist last season, was hardly the only issue for the Kings. Tampa Bay’s breathtaking duo of Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov often toyed with the Kings with a combined two goals and three assists.
Lightning goalie Peter Budaj won in his return to Staples Center, where an announced crowd of 18,230 watched a tantalizing earlyseason contest of two division leaders dissolve in a two-minute, four-goal breakdown in the first period.
“The wheels kind of came off a little bit there,” Anze Kopitar said. “We gave up four quick ones. Against a team like that, you know you can’t outscore them because they do have a lot of firepower. Obviously when you go down 4-0, it’s a steep hill to climb.
“That first period seemed like we were a step behind all the time.”
Tampa Bay went into Thursday as the highestscoring team in the NHL at nearly four goals per game, while the Kings were No.1 in goals against at 2.27 goals per game.
And the Kings were not as equipped for a high-scoring affair because forward Adrian Kempe was a late scratch because of an illness, the team said.
The Kings got goals from Tyler Toffoli, on the power play, and Oscar Fantenberg, his first in the NHL. They also had Kopitar ring a shot off both goal posts and had a goal disallowed on goalie interference.
But for the third straight game, the Kings faced a deficit early. A blocker save by Budaj on Kopitar turned out to swing a first period that quickly snowballed.
Tampa Bay responded with goals by Kucherov, his NHL-leading 16th, Alex Killorn, Hedman and Stamkos. In four-on-four play, Kucherov took a stretch pass from Stamkos on a breakaway and beat Quick on a backhand. Killorn redirected Dan Girardi’s centering pass. Even when the Kings got players back in transition they still couldn’t stop Hedman from getting time to lift a wrist shot to the corner of the net.
Stamkos one-timed Killorn’s pass on the power play to give Tampa Bay four goals on its first eight shots.
“We knew they were a good team,” Fantenberg said. “We have to close the gap a little bit better than we did. We did back off too much and give them time and space.”
Goalie Jonathan Quick stayed in the game, though, and kept it from getting further out of hand. He stopped Kucherov on a partial breakaway and made three stops during a penalty kill in the second period.
“You can’t run and gun, especially now, with a team like that,” Kopitar said. “It’s certainly not our system. We just have to check a little bit better and not give them all the opportunities they had because Quickie made some really good stops and it could have been a lot harder than it was.”
Budaj also made a big stop on Nic Dowd in the second period. Traded from the Kings to Tampa Bay after he resurrected his career with 27 wins last season, Budaj, 35, didn’t forget that opportunity with the Kings.
“They gave me a chance when nobody else would,” Budaj told the Tampa Bay Times before the game. “This will always be a special place for me.”
TAMPA BAY goalie Peter Budaj makes a save on a shot by the Kings’ Jake Muzzin. Budaj had 22 saves as the Lightning won the battle of division leaders.
TAMPA BAY’S Nikita Kucherov, right, gets a hug from Steven Stamkos after giving the Lightning a 1-0 lead.