The de­fense rests for the Kings

Team’s sloppy play is on dis­play as Tampa Bay rolls with four first-pe­riod goals

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - cur­tis.zupke@la­times.com Twit­ter: @cur­tiszupke By Cur­tis Zupke

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.”

Harry How Getty Im­ages

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.

Michael Owen Baker As­so­ci­ated Press

TAMPA BAY’S Nikita Kucherov, right, gets a hug from Steven Stamkos af­ter giv­ing the Light­ning a 1-0 lead.

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