Winter descended upon the Los Angeles Kings about 3 a.m. Thursday morning, when they arrived here from Colorado, to face sub-zero temperatures and a chilly start to the NHL's lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. The Kings are 0-2 out of the gate.
Considering L.A. lost just four times in all of last year's playoffs en route to winning the first Stanley Cup, this was an early reversal of form – as if the hockey gods were paying them back for all the good karma they had last spring. After an injury-free spring, they are already without two mainstays on defence – Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene – and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie Jonathan Quick is coming off summer back surgery.
A team that couldn't lose for the better part of two months found itself victim of their new post-lockout reality – too many players still trying to find their way in the early days of season.
Kings' coach Darryl Sutter – surrounded by family, and as close to his hometown of Viking as is possible in the NHL – riffed on that theme after Wednesday's afternoon practice in preparation for a date with the Edmonton Oilers. Sutter doesn't hold much for sentimentality, or what happened in the past. Apart from defenceman Drew Doughty, who drew high praise for his play in the first two games, Sutter wasn't thrilled with much of what he's seen so far.
"One of the things about the 48-game schedule, it's not about what you did or what you might do, it's what you're doing," Sutter said. "That's the fact. There's not enough difference between the teams. We've seen it twice. We've seen [Chicago's] Jonathan Toews and last night, No. 9 [Colorado's Matt Duchene] – dominant players at that position, because they're young and they're ready to go. They're spot on already.
"If you look at the game we played last night, Duchene kicked our two centermen's asses. When he had to do, he did."
The Kings just got Anze Kopitar, last year's leading playoff scorer, back in the lineup for the 3-1 loss to the Avalanche, a game which L.A. dominated for 40 minutes, but couldn't put away. Kopitar was injured playing in Sweden just before the lockout ended. Thus far, all of L.A.'s scoring has come from the fourth line. Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan (five points between them) are outscoring the rest of the team combined.
This is Sutter's third crack at a post-lockout coaching assignment, but suggested it doesn't get any easier, even knowing what he knows.
"It's so hard to get a read on things because everyone's different," Sutter said. "Quite honestly, you don't know where they're at training coming in – and you've seen it. Some of our guys' pace isn't where it's gotta be and you're not sure how to get it there, quite honest, because you don't have the practices to do it. You're doing a lot of talking about it, but then, having them actually do it during the game, that's the tough part."
The Kings essentially stood pat in the off-season, returning every player that was in the lineup the night they knocked off the New Jersey Devils for the Stanley Cup back in June.
"I think that's an advantage for us – no new coaches, no new players, no new philosophies," said Kings defenceman Rob Scuderi, who previously won a championship in Pittsburgh as well. "Sometimes, I guess you can argue that there's some complacency with all the same pieces, but with a shortened season, I would hope it'll be an advantage for us.
"It's been seven months. We've had our ceremony – and it has to end there. If we keep looking back and thinking how great we were, we will have a hard time being good this season."
"The playoff run, us winning, that's over with," added centre Jarret Stoll, the former Oiler. "We don't even talk about that. We've just got to get that battle back that we had for those two or three months – and get it back as quickly as possible because of how short the season is.
"With how we won, we won with everybody going – four lines, six D, Quickie was great obviously. That's how we're going to have to play. That's how we played for two periods [Tuesday night], but obviously, we need more."
The Kings' special assignments coach, Bernie Nicholls, played in the shortened 1994-95-season for the Chicago Blackhawks and was a top-20 scorer in the league that year. Nicholls is a calming influence in the team's dressing room and cautions patience, suggesting that the Kings will eventually find their rhythm again.
"It's not so much the 48 games for these guys, it's what they're coming off," Nicholls said. "Winning the Cup, then first game, we got the ceremony, ring stuff. Last night, we played well for a while. I just think they're so good. I think they're built for the playoffs – they're big, strong and physical. To play them in a long series, I don't think anybody would want to play them in a long series.
"We've had some injuries, which is fine, that's part of the game. Once the guys get back and playing and forget about last year, they'll be really good."