Down to their last healthy bodies in their last game of 10 contests in 17 days in six cities, the Kings took the bruising and boisterous Flames to the final seconds Thursday.
They lost to Calgary, 2-1, and relinquished the top spot in the Western Conference after the Sharks beat the Ducks, but they didn’t lose their sense of pride and the conviction that they should have done better.
And when was the last time that could be said about the Kings with a straight face?
They competed relentlessly with a lineup full of players who were riding buses in the minor leagues a few days or weeks ago, not giving an inch to a team that must have been salivating at a roster full of so many untried and unfamiliar names.
“They see lot of guys we called up from the American League and they want to push us out of the game with a lot of heavy play,” Kings Coach Terry Murray said.
“I was real proud of our guys in that sense, that we didn’t go away.”
But they did go away perturbed about losing two points, thinking more about that than relishing the positive aspects of entering their eight-day break with a 7-2-1 record in December.
By any standards, what they’ve done this month is impressive. To anyone, it seems, but the players who quietly packed their equipment for the charter flight home after the Kings’ eighth straight loss at the Pengrowth Saddledome.
“It’s just a tribute to the guys in here and the belief system we have going into games,” Dustin Brown said. “That’s something we’ve never had.”
Who’s left and what they can contribute seems to matter more than who’s missing.
Center Jarret Stoll missed his second straight game with a groin injury, Jack Johnson is clomping around in a protective boot with a sore foot and couldn’t play and his defense partner, Randy Jones, was held out because of headaches and a stiff neck he suffered in a collision Tuesday with Edmonton’s Dustin Penner.
Despite this, the Kings battled hard Thursday.
They have played that way in every game for a while now.
“It’s one of those situations where it doesn’t matter who’s been playing for us. We’re getting production from everybody,” defenseman Matt Greene said.
A last-second goal by Dion Phaneuf in the first period was the game’s only scoring until Nigel Dawes finished off a bang-bang play 62 seconds into the third period.
That still wasn’t enough to silence the Kings, who pulled within one at 11:06 on Corey Elkins’ first NHL goal. The play developed from tenacious efforts by Elkins, Oscar Moller — who seemed to be the Flames’ official pin cushion — and Brad Richardson.
“It’s an amazing feeling. It’s unfortunate we couldn’t have also had a win to go with it,” Elkins said. “It was a good play. We just got it down deep. We made some cycle plays and just drove the net and Oscar made a great pass.”
The Kings had a power play later in the period but couldn’t connect, and they pushed hard after goalie Jonathan Quick was pulled for an extra skater. They finished with a 16-3 edge in shots in the period and 35-24 overall.
Coming out on the short side on the scoreboard didn’t mean they were short of character.
“I don’t think guys are too happy with the loss in here,” Greene said. “You can say your record whatever it was, guys in this room, we want to win every game and we feel confident that we can.
“Tonight stinks because it was right there. We had our chances. If we eliminate a couple mistakes, maybe we’re on the other end and we’re winning that game, 1-0.”
Miikka Kiprusoff played well for the Flames, who had lost their previous three games and had only one victory in their previous five.
“If it’s not for Kiprusoff, in my mind, we end up winning the game,” Murray said.
But they didn’t, and they were still too regretful over the two points they could have earned to fully appreciate what they have accomplished so far.
The break should help refresh them mentally and physically. When they next play, Dec. 26 at Phoenix, winger Ryan Smyth should have recovered from the rib injury he suffered Nov. 16. Linemate Anze Kopitar hasn’t been the same without him.
Stoll should be ready then too, although the severity of the injuries to Jones and Johnson is unclear.
“A win definitely would have helped ease us into the break,” Richardson said. “We have to watch a few teams now get closer. But with the amount of games we’ve played I think we’ve played pretty well.”