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Column: Loss to Edmonton shows Kings must ramp up their game before the playoffs

Every game the Kings have played the past month or so has resembled a Stanley Cup playoff game in its intensity, but Thursday night they got a sense of what an actual postseason matchup against the Edmonton Oilers would feel like if the Pacific Division standings remain the same and they meet in the first round.

The verdict for the Kings was decidedly mixed.

On the good side were Thousand Oaks native Trevor Moore scoring his league-leading fifth shorthanded goal and the confidence-boosting 20th goal scored by winger Viktor Arvidsson, whose production was limited by injuries the last two seasons. The returns from injury of defenseman Matt Roy and forward Brendan Lemieux were heartening for them, too.

On the bad side were the Kings’ inexplicably slow start, their costly small mistakes, and an overall subpar collective effort in a 3-2 loss to the Oilers at Crypto.com Arena. If everyone’s not pulling together, their quest for their first playoff berth since 2017-18 will be a tough one and their postseason journey could be short. Their margin for error is vanishing.

“Against this team you need to take care of the puck and you need to slow them down. You’ve got to manage a game like that,” said Arvidsson, who used a screen to snap a long shot past goaltender Mike Smith and cut the Oilers’ lead to one goal seven minutes into the third period. “I think we did that to some degree today but obviously we want to come out on top.”

In winning their sixth straight game, the Oilers moved three points ahead of the third-place Kings and have a game in hand. The Kings must watch their backs, too, with the Vegas Golden Knights four points behind them but also holding a game in hand.

The top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs along with the two teams in each conference with the next-best records. Through Thursday’s games, Central Division teams Nashville (86 points) and Dallas (84) held the wild-card spots.

Although the Kings couldn’t contain NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid, who scored his career-best 42nd goal to put the Oilers ahead in the first period and set up the third-period goal by defenseman Evan Bouchard that stood up as the winner, they’re not alone. Few teams have been able to slow McDavid, who has 108 points. And once the Kings picked up the pace in the second period, they were able to do some of what they wanted to do. Emphasis on some.

“Not enough. Not quite enough,” coach Todd McLellan said. “We had some really good performances, had some average performances.

“Actually, we were just talking in the coaches’ room. After every game we kind of quickly go through the lineup while there’s a little bit of emotion left in it, and when you describe an individual as just OK, that probably cuts it in November, December, but certainly not in April. And we’re a little bit short tonight with just OK players. They weren’t horrible but they weren’t quite good enough in certain situations.”

Asked what Thursday’s game might mean for a possible Kings-Oilers playoff series, McLellan said he looked at it in tandem with the Kings’ 4-3 shootout loss at Edmonton on March 30. The Kings led that game early, fell behind 3-1, and were able to pull even before losing in the tiebreaking skill contest.

“They fixed some things. I thought we fixed some issues that we had in Edmonton. The type of scoring chances they had in their building they didn’t have here tonight,” McLellan said.

“There are some preventable moments in tonight’s game. First one, awful line change on our behalf. We skated right by arguably the best player in the world and he was going 100 miles an hour, so that doesn’t help us. We had very poor execution after a faceoff win. On the third one, it was a screen shot, turnover, whatever you want, but the faceoff cost us. We won a draw but we didn’t execute. So those are fixable, repairable things. That’s what’s encouraging about a potential matchup.”

Also uplifting was Moore’s shorthanded goal, which brought the Kings even at 1-1 at 2:29 of the second period. His neat backhander, assisted by Phillip Danault, was a thing of beauty. “He’s skilled. He can move the puck in tight. He moves his feet and creates and attacks and finds spaces where the defense has a hard time getting him,” Arvidsson said. “He’s a great player and he’s fun to play with.”

Warren Foegele put Edmonton ahead 2-1 with a one-timer at 15:26 of the second period and Bouchard extended that to 3-1 at 4:01 of the third. Arvidsson got one back at the seven-minute mark, but the Kings could do no more. They couldn’t even get out of their own zone late in the game to attempt a frantic push.

“Give them credit. Happens,” McLellan said.

And so it’s on to the next one for the Kings, who will open a three-game trip at Minnesota on Sunday. They’ve been better on the road than at home this season, 18-16-4 on home ice and 20-9-6 away. That’s reason for them to be optimistic, but they can’t take anything for granted at this stage. The next few weeks will be tough. They’ll have to prove they deserve to play in real playoff games, not merely games that feel like postseason contests.



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