As I sat down to write this article, I found myself struggling to separate the 0-1-1 series in Minnesota from the 4-1-1 road trip as a whole. The Kings earned nine of a possible 12 points from their longest road trip of the 2020-21 season, and that’s a really good thing. Just one of those points, however, came in Minnesota.
The two games at Xcel Energy Center consisted of the Kings falling behind by a 3-0 margin on back-to-back days.
Game 1 was pretty fully deserved, as the Kings conceded first and unraveled a bit from there. Three minutes and two additional goals against later, you have a three-goal deficit in the first period. By the time they caught their breath, it was too late.
“We haven’t had that feeling of falling behind in a long time, and I didn’t think we responded well,” Todd McLellan said, after Friday’s loss. “We had a three-minute lapse, misplayed one off the endboards for the second one and the third one was just a mess in our zone. It took us the rest of that period and pretty much all of the second period to stabilize in the game.”
On Saturday, the story was a bit different. Two of the three goals allowed were absolute flukes. I mean seriously, how often do you see either that first Wild goal and that third Wild goal happen? And then, how often do you see them in the same game?
“For me, it was a night of strange goals,” McLellan said. “If you look at their first one, everybody’s in position, it bounces off a linesman, bounces into the middle, we chop at it with a stick, it flutters up in the air, it’s a change-up, it goes over the top of everybody into the net. The broken stick goal, the d-man shoots it and it goes right to Kaprizov. Everybody pauses for a second because no one knows where the puck is, just a strange night when it comes to goals.”
Strange goals or not, the response from the Kings was different in both games as well. Night 1, the team lacked that necessary sharpness in the offensive end, and in most areas of the rink really. The three goals against put them all out of sorts and they only really started creating some opportunities in the second half of the game, when it was too late. McLellan felt that some bad habits which crept into his team’s game in St. Louis, though they didn’t cost the Kings, were present on Friday in Minnesota as well.
Night two felt different. Though you could certainly look back at 4-5 different Cal Petersen saves as important in keeping the game at a variety of scorelines, the Kings created chances of their own throughout the game, and finally got rewarded with a power-play goal – as a whole, the power-play unit looked substantially sharper on night two. Once the game was 3-2, the Kings got a flukey goal of their own, as Adrian Kempe half-whiffed on a one-timer, but the knucklepuck went into the net, earning the team a point they probably deserved.
The late goal allowed on Saturday was more of a heartbreaker than a backbreaker, though it probably feels like both, as well as a couple of other kinds of breakers. Anytime you’re down three goals in a game, and you can walk away with a point, you probably feel somewhat fortunate. At the same time though, when you concede an overtime game-winning goal with three-tenths of a second on the clock, it’s always going to sting, regardless of how you got there.
“It still sucks that we lost,” Adrian Kempe said, when asked if it felt like a point earned versus a point dropped. “I thought we took over in the second and third periods, and they got some bounces going their way. I think it sucks for us, but one point is alright.”
I think that theme is how the Minnesota games specifically tie into the road trip as a whole. You’re not happy with they way those two games went specifically, when you lose four points to one, versus a team you’re likely going to fight for a playoff berth down the stretch. In the bigger picture though, when you consider the road trip as a whole, you’re pretty darn happy with how things went for the Kings.
There’s obviously no doubting that the Kings definitely, most certainly could have used that overtime win yesterday evening. But in the grander picture, the Kings picked up a point that pushed the total on the trip to nine, and that’s a heck of an effort. Had the Minnesota series been the middle set, and the St. Louis sweep been the ending, the vibes are a lot different, even though the impact in the standings would have been identical.
This road trip as a whole was perhaps the first defining moment for the Kings this season, but it’s far from the last. Test number one has been passed, but you don’t get an A for the semester by getting an A on the first test.
The daunting stretch in early March might be what truly defines the season for the Kings. Beginning on Wednesday against Arizona, Los Angeles will play 13 games in a span of 20 days. The upcoming slate of games includes three back-to-backs, and no more than one day in between any two games.
While the team will obviously need to prioritize rest in that stretch, the way the schedule shakes out likely eliminates most meaningful practice time that a young team can benefit from.
“We’ve got some things ahead of us that we have to work on,” McLellan said after tonight’s game. “I’m looking forward to some of the practice time that is upcoming [over the next two days], because we haven’t had a lot of it on the road.”
The schedule to follow puts a premium on these practice days to come early this week, because once the Kings play Arizona on March 3, in a game rescheduled to COVID issues with other teams in the division, there’s no turning back. The Kings answering the bell of this upcoming stretch will be critical for the team’s playoff hopes and remaining in the thick of things as the calendar flips to March. Before they can even catch their breath at the end of that stretch, it will nearly be April.
It’s exciting to be talking about the importance of these games though, isn’t it? The Kings sit just a point out of fourth place in the West Division, with some exciting games and moments to come.