Angeles Analysis – Game 5

There is something impossibly sad about a National Hockey League locker room after a team has lost a playoff series.

Maybe it’s the quiet. Like walking into a funeral home.

As there is in every room after every playoff loss, there was a pall in the Los Angeles Kings’ locker room at Rogers Place in Edmonton after the Kings dropped Game 5 by a 4-3 score ending the first-round series.

In the room players, staff and coaches moved about silently, talking in hushed tones as they attended to the mundane routines that follow any hockey game, the packing up of the sticks, the name plates being taken down from over the players’ stalls.

Except, as mundane and familiar as these duties and routines are, in this moment, in the wake of a series-ending loss, nothing is ordinary and everything is shot through with the sudden finality of it all.

Sticks aren’t being packed for tomorrow’s practice or the next game, they are being packed for good.

Up in the stands at Rogers Place, the happy sounds of La Bamba and Another One Bites The Dust blared as a haggard-looking Kings captain Anze Kopitar entered the locker room to talk to the media.

There is something universal about these moments, too.

Minutes after having your season come to an abrupt, heartbreaking end, players appear before cameras and recorders and notepads and are asked to put it all into perspective.

As if there is perspective in this moment.

“Definitely a disappointing feeling, obviously, for the third year in a row,” Kopitar said. “And, yeah, it just sucks right now.”

Someone asked Kopitar what the conversation was like in the room after the loss. It’s a fair question.

But that’s the reality of losing in the playoffs. No matter how good or valid the questions, the answers all seem somehow futile or inadequate.

“No, there’s nothing going on right now. It’s on the quiet side of things,” Kopitar said. “That’ll be in the days to come.”

Phil Danault followed Kopitar into the room and spoke so softly you had to strain to hear the veteran center.

“I don’t know what to think. It’s too fresh, but it definitely hurts,” Danault said. “Got to be better to win against that team. I like the effort from the guys, but they just capitalized on every chance they had.”

Drew Doughty was the third of the leadership group to meet with the media. He and Kopitar along with Trevor Lewis who returned to the Kings this season, are the holdovers from the team’s glory days when they won Stanley Cups in 2012 and 2014 and went to a Western Conference Final in between.

“It’s super frustrating. I mean, I don’t really have all the answers for you on what’s missing,” Doughty said. “Probably just needed some more guys to step up, play better, all of us, every single guy on the team. I mean that’s the only way you’re going to win a playoff series.”

The Kings haven’t won a playoff series since 2014.

This series marked the third straight first-round confrontation with Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers. In each series the Kings have won one fewer game, losing in seven, six and now five games.

The narrative of this series was clear and distinct.

The Kings could not get on the right side of the special teams battle right from the get-go and it cost them dearly.

It was so in a hard-fought fifth game that saw the Kings take a 2-1 lead in the second period and then give up a power-play goal and two more goals seconds after an Edmonton power play ended to fall behind 4-2 going into the third period.

The Kings scored a late goal to close the gap to one but could not get even.

“We just got to play better really. Special teams hurt us a lot obviously in this series,” Kopitar said. “There were parts of the games where we were good, we were dictating the game. But you’ve got to do it obviously more often in every game too in order to win the series.”

At even strength the Kings were arguably the better team. Certainly there was little to separate the two teams at 5-on-5.

But the Oilers finished the series 9-for-20 on the power play. The Kings were 0-for-12.

It is a sobering indictment of the team’s special teams play.

“I thought five-on-five we were pretty consistent,” head coach Jim Hiller said. “When you evaluate the series it was our inability to score on the power play and their ability to score on the power play.”

“To play them the way we did at five-on-five you’ve got to be doing something right,” Hiller added. “It just comes down to special teams. It’s a pretty simple write-up on this one I think. You saw one team execute and one team not (on) special teams.”

During the games in Edmonton the opposing coaches (and select winning players) speak in what the Oilers call the Hall Of Fame Room far from the locker rooms.

It’s a big, high-ceilinged room with lots of glass and even though the blinds were drawn you could hear jubilant Oiler fans as they walked back and forth on the street in front of the interview room chanting “Let’s Go Oilers” and “We Want The Cup”.

It’s the soundtrack of victory and at the same time a painful reminder of what was lost here on this night and that was the opportunity to keep playing, to stay in the hunt.

For the Oilers the hunt continues. For the Kings the hunt and now begins the self-examination that all organizations in this situation go through as they hope to chart a different course next spring.

This marked Hiller’s first NHL head coaching experience in the playoffs.

He took a moment to talk about how grateful he was to the players and for this experience.

“It’s a great group of players with a lot of character, they made it easy for me,” Hiller said of the transition of the team’s play after he took over around the All Star break. “So, owe a lot to them, they got themselves back together, had a good break and got playing again. They’re good players and really good guys, really good people so I enjoyed it.”

As much as this was a bitter outcome to come to grips with, credit to the leadership group and to Hiller for not using the officiating in Game 5 as a crutch.

There was a sequence of events after the Oilers had tied the game 2-2 on a Leon Draisaitl power play marker in the second period that changed the dynamic of the game.

During a Los Angeles power play Kevin Fiala was hooked by Warren Foegele. That would have given the Kings almost a full minute of 5-on-3 man advantage. But Fiala was called for embellishment.

Shortly after, PL Dubois was called for holding Leon Draisaitl although replays showed the contact as shoulder on body.

The Oilers scored seconds after Dubois returned to the ice and never relinquished the lead.

“No, no comment from me,” Hiller said when asked about the officiating. “My job is to evaluate my team. That’s what I do. Somebody else has got that job, it’s not me.”

Doughty, who is often painfully forthright in his comments, also took the high road.

“I mean, the refs’ jobs are pretty tough. They’re seeing things at a high pace. Yeah, when you watch the video and stuff you might see something different, but they’re trying to do their best, just like we’re trying to do our best out there. I’m not going to put any blame on the refs. We lost 4-1 in the series. It had nothing to do with reffing.”

In the end, Doughty is exactly right.

In the coming days there will be time for reflection and to start thinking about how to correct the mistakes that were made and how to learn from these experiences and how to pick up the pieces as an organization and go at it again.

Because that’s the nature of sport.

“Come work hard in the off-season again, come back stronger and use this experience, these past experiences, and use them as motivation and try to win a series,” Doughty said.

Then he got up and left to shower and change, leaving the Kings’ staff to complete their normal duties even though every single person in that locker room and the adjacent offices and change areas knew there was nothing ordinary about what was transpiring in this room.

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