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Clock ticking on champion Kings' playoff hopes

by Dan Rosen

WASHINGTON -- There is only so long a team can bend before it breaks. The Los Angeles Kings aren't broken yet, but their cracks are getting longer and their time to fix them is getting shorter.

"We've got to figure this thing out in a hurry," center Anze Kopitar said after the latest loss, a lackluster 4-0 defeat at the hands of the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Tuesday.

The Kings have battled adversity in the past only to twice come out with the Stanley Cup in their hands. The problem is, what they're battling now isn't adversity, it's themselves.

They are five points out of a Stanley Cup Playoff spot with four teams to jump. They have been passed by the Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild -- the three teams previously thought of as the most disappointing in the Western Conference this season -- because of uncharacteristic mistakes and an indescribable lack of passion of late.

Yes, teams are defeating the Kings and deserve credit for that, but they're defeating them in ways that are uncharacteristic to the Kings, such as by being tougher than them, outshooting them, outhitting them and outhustling them.

"We haven't been playing well; we've been turning the puck over," defenseman Matt Greene said. "It's only uncharacteristic for so long until it becomes routine, and that's the way we've been playing lately."

That could have something to do with the 326 games the Kings have played since the 2011-12 season, more than any team in the NHL. Maybe they're physically beat up and mentally drained.

"Those are just excuses. I think it's just a matter of getting yourself ready to go," captain Dustin Brown said.

Brown said the Kings haven't been doing that. It showed in their resistance-free performance against the Capitals, when they had no forecheck, no pressure, and two quality scoring chances before Washington put the game out of reach in the third period.

"It starts with our emotion," Brown said. "We're a good team, but it's hard to win when you don't play with enough emotion. That's on an individual level and a collective level. We need everyone to be invested in the games emotionally. From there we can work on X's and O's and all that, but we need the emotion first."

Upon hearing Brown's assertion that the Kings lack emotion, coach Darryl Sutter was quick to single him out for making a bad change that led to Washington's first goal Tuesday.

The point: Talk all you want, it doesn't absolve you of the blame, of which there is plenty to go around.

"We've talked enough," Kopitar said, "now we've got to do it on the ice."

For too long this season the Kings have been the passive team in games, particularly at the start. They have a minus-10 goal-differential in the first period.

"It's a tough game to chase," center Jarret Stoll said.

The chase has burned the Kings. They have been on the wrong end of 18 of 24 one-goal games (6-6-12). Their .250 winning percentage in one-goal games is last in the League. They are 2-12 in games that extend past regulation, including 1-7 in the shootout.

Last season, the Kings were 21-14-8 in one-goal games, not great, but at .488 they were 14th in the League.

"The confidence right now going into the third periods tied needs to improve," right wing Justin Williams said. "We've lost a lot of games, a lot of points in overtime and in third periods whereas normally we don't do that. We need to get that swagger back in the third period that when it's tied we have the confidence and know-how to get two points out of the game and not just settle for one."

They're barely settling for any points when they're on the road, which has been their biggest problem and has to be their biggest concern going forward. Nineteen of the Kings' final 32 games are on the road, where they are 5-11-6.

Only the Carolina Hurricanes (6-17-3) and Buffalo Sabres (5-20-1) have worse road records than Los Angeles.

"We just don't have the intensity and the emotion that we did have in the past and we're going to have in the future," Kopitar said when asked specifically about the road record.

Can they get that intensity and emotion back?

"Yeah," Kopitar replied quickly.

He's talking like a player who is a champion and who hasn't lost his confidence. Both are true.

The Kings have battled back in more instances than any other team in the past three seasons, including from a 3-0 series deficit in the Western Conference First Round last season, when they also became the first team in NHL history to win three Game 7s on the road. They have earned the right to be taken seriously even when they are clearly struggling.

"This is a great team," Williams said.

But it's a different team from the ones that won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and 2014. Even though 13 players remain from the Kings' first Cup win and 19 players are still around from last season's win, the personnel has changed enough, and not for the better.

Defenseman Slava Voynov is suspended indefinitely, defenseman Willie Mitchell is the playing for the Florida Panthers and forward Mike Richards is playing in the American Hockey League. The Kings have not replaced Voynov, Mitchell or Richards with players of commensurate value.

In addition, forward Tanner Pearson is injured and has missed the past eight games; the Kings are 2-4-2 without him.

"It's quite a bit different team," Sutter said. "We've been able to manage it at home, but it's a little bit more difficult on the road."

On the road is where the matchups get thrown out of whack because the Kings don't have the last change. They don't get Kopitar and Marian Gaborik on the ice in favorable situations and have to use defenseman Drew Doughty in a shutdown role, which prevents him from being a game-changer off the rush.

Not enough players have stepped up to compensate, leaving Doughty to play too many minutes and Kopitar and Gaborik to face heavy pressure. They have wilted.

Kopitar has seven points and a minus-13 rating in 19 road games compared to 31 points and a plus-6 rating in 28 home games. Gaborik has eight points and a minus-3 rating in 17 road games compared to 19 points and a plus-3 in 20 home games.

"Maybe it's a depth thing," Sutter said.

Maybe the Kings aren't good enough to overcome it. Maybe they aren't good enough, period.

There's still too much hockey to be played to make bold statements, particularly about a team that has so often done what at the time seemed like the impossible.

The Kings still have championship talent and an all-world goalie, Jonathan Quick. They still have a strong belief in their ability and what they are capable of accomplishing. They still have 32 games to play.

"It's gut-check time," Greene said.

If they don't fix it soon they'll be out of time.

"We've been talking about it for a month now; if guys don't know what's going on then they haven't been listening," Brown said. "We've had plenty of meetings, we've talked about it. At a certain point you have to stop talking about it and do [it]."

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