This team and this season were supposed to be different.
These wouldn’t be the old Kings, who would show some promise but swoon out of playoff contention by New Year’s Day. This team showed depth and character and fought through injuries with poise and persistence.
These Kings might still end a streak of six non-playoff finishes, but for that to happen they’ll have to fight their way out of the kind of slump that has engulfed and devoured them too often in recent memory.
Despite a fiery third period, the Kings lost their third straight game Monday and fourth in their last five with a 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild at Staples Center.
Their first home game since Dec. 12 was a mostly rotten welcome-back present for a sellout crowd of 18,118 and the ending was especially cruel.
The Kings pulled even at 17 minutes 23 seconds of the third period on a fine effort from the slot by newly recalled winger Scott Parse, only to have the Wild regain the lead 12 seconds later on a shot by former King Eric Belanger from the right circle that ticked off Drew Doughty’s stick and sailed over Jonathan Quick’s right shoulder.
“It’s unbelievable how quick that happened,” Doughty said of the mood swing. “We had all the power going in and we felt if we took it to overtime we were going to win it.”
They didn’t, and they dropped to sixth in the West. That’s still better than anyone expected before this season but not as good a position as they were in two weeks ago — or could have been in had they won Monday.
“It was a huge two points that got away from us,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “We found ways to win a couple of weeks ago. We’ve got to find ways to win now.”
It was the Kings’ second deflating loss of the day, coming a few hours after right wing Justin Williams underwent ankle surgery that’s expected to keep him out of the lineup for 12 weeks.
The Kings’ production is waning without Williams, Jarret Stoll (groin) and defenseman Randy Jones (headaches). They’ve scored 10 goals in their last five games, only two on the power play.
After a scoreless first period, the Wild broke through at 4:23 of the second on a goal by Martin Havlat, who had been benched for most of the Wild’s Oct. 8 loss to the Kings at Staples Center because of poor play. He atoned for that Monday when he raced up the right wing after Anze Kopitar turned the puck over just inside Minnesota’s blue line, and whipped a rising shot past Quick from about 35 feet.
The assist went to Belanger, who made the short pass that set up Havlat for the scoring chance.
The Kings pulled even at 11:36, despite the Wild’s protests that goalie Niklas Backstrom had been interfered with or that the net was off its moorings when the puck crossed the goal line. Doughty, strengthening an already persuasive case for a berth on the Canadian Olympic team, scored the goal when he went to the net and, despite losing an edge and falling, jammed home the rebound off a save Backstrom had made on Brad Richardson with his left pad.
The Wild pulled ahead again at the 15-minute mark during a power play it gained after Ryan Smyth was sent off for hooking.
Alexander Frolov had broken his stick and headed back to the bench for a replacement, leaving the Kings even shorter of manpower. The puck landed on the stick of Mikko Koivu along the boards, and he passed to Andrew Brunette for a shot that Quick stopped. A trailing and unchecked Kim Johnsson easily pounced on the rebound and flicked a wrist shot past Quick.
“Little mistakes are costing us big goals,” defenseman Matt Greene said.
The Kings’ confusion in their own end led to Minnesota’s third goal, at 18:58 of the second. Owen Nolan controlled the puck in the left-wing corner and threw it in front, where it hit Belanger. He had time to capture it and put it on net and it got past Quick while the sellout crowd watched in stunned silence.
The fans’ spirits and the noise level picked up when the Kings cut Minnesota’s lead to 3-2 during a power play, at 2:28 of the third. Doughty was again the catalyst, with a slick cross-ice pass to Jack Johnson for a shot that deflected off Minnesota’s Johnsson while Michal Handzus created a screen in front, but the Belanger goal was a crusher.
“It’s definitely a heartbreaker,” Kopitar said, knowing there’s little choice but to pick up the pieces of that broken heart and reassemble it quickly before the season is broken beyond repair.