LOS ANGELES -- They are the one team the Los Angeles Kings must beat to truly be considered contenders in the Western Conference.
Their record (8-7-1) may not show it at the moment, but the Vancouver Canucks represent the Kings’ NHL litmus test and on Thursday night they failed miserably.
The Kings have now won only two of their last nine games and look more like pretenders than contenders as they try to break out of an ongoing funk that saw them finally snap a five-game losing streak Tuesday before starting a new one Thursday.
Against the Canucks, the second best power-play team in the NHL at 26.4 percent, the Kings quickly put themselves in a massive hole by giving up two goals on the 5-on-3 advantage within the first eight minutes. The Kings never even gave the late-arriving fans a chance to get comfortable in their seats before they fell behind 3-0 by the end of the first period.
“It’s very hard to dig out of a hole like that against that kind of a team,” Kings coach Terry Murray said. “They were just too deep, too good. They were President’s Trophy winners for a reason. We tried, we worked. I liked everything we were trying to do. On the penalty kill we did a real good job on intensity and compete. I thought we were trying hard in the third period to get back in it. It’s too hard to turn the tables sometimes.”
Most of the young players in the Kings' locker room remember their introduction to big-time, playoff hockey two seasons ago when they took the Canucks to six games and beat Vancouver in a dramatic overtime game at General Motors Place.
They remember last season when Vancouver took the Boston Bruins to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals after they were once again ousted in the first round, this time by the San Jose Sharks.
This was supposed to be the season the Kings got past the Canucks and Sharks and, more important, past the first round of the playoffs. It’s hard to imagine that happening as long as the Kings continue playing the way they have, especially against the Canucks and the Sharks, which beat the Kings 4-2 on Monday.
As much as the Kings have struggled offensively this season, they also haven’t gotten the steady play from goalie Jonathan Quick they have come to expect. Quick has now gone winless in his last six games and is giving up an average of three goals a game with a .900 goals-against average during that stretch. His career record against the Canucks is now 3-7-1.
“You don’t want to get down one goal, two goals, it doesn’t matter,” Quick said. “You always want to score the first goal and we were unable to do that tonight. The next 50 minutes we were trying to get out of the hole we dug ourselves in but came up a little short there. I thought we fought hard to get back into the game and we did, we made it a game. We had a couple chances at the end to tie it up. We just have to keep battling the way we did there in those last two periods and things will turn around.”
Murray remembered the look on his players’ faces after they lost to the Canucks in the playoffs two seasons ago and told them to remember that feeling because it would be the first step toward something bigger. He loved the fact they got a taste of playoff hockey in Canada and even better experienced a playoff win. It was the birth of a rivalry, he had hoped, but it has turned more into revelry for Vancouver whenever they play.
“It has more meaning because we played them in the playoffs and that’s where more of a rivalry is developed,” Murray said. “They set the tone for the league because they are the Presidents’ Trophy winner. They had a great regular season last year, they have balance, they have depth and they come and play a very high-tempo game, a very skilled game. You’re looking at them and saying that’s the best in the league, that’s where you have to get to so you have to push through and try to get there.”
After Thursday night’s game, however, it’s clear the Kings who have more pushing to do before they can even begin to push the Canucks off their pedestal in the Western Conference.
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.