It was difficult not to feel a sense of what might have been in watching the Kraken lose to their latest playoff-bound opponent.
The Los Angeles Kings were not really expected to be among the Pacific Division’s top-three teams when the season began. And yet, a Kings side that defeated the Kraken 5-3 on Wednesday night is indeed headed to the postseason as the division’s third-best team — while the local squad is headed for a top-five draft lottery pick.
“The line between winning and losing is very thin,” Kraken forward Jordan Eberle said when asked about his team’s competitive play against the Kings this season and whether it’s a sign they really aren’t that far from turning things around. “Oftentimes, it may look like you’re not even close. But you find a way to push it over, to get that confidence and start rolling. That’s when you start winning games.
“So, it’s never as bad as it seems and it’s never as good as it seems. You have to find a way to stay humble and commit to the little things that get you over that line to start winning hockey games.”
Lias Andersson snapped a 3-3 tie and gave the Kings their first lead of the night at 2:39 of the final period when left uncovered in the slot for a quick wrist shot past Kraken goalie Philipp Grubauer. Sean Durzi scored in similar fashion just 16 seconds later, but the goal was disallowed when the Kraken successfully challenged for goaltender interference.
The Kraken had a great chance to tie it when Gabriel Vilardi took a four-minute double-minor for high-sticking at 11:08 of the third. Then, as one expired, Phillip Danault took a hooking penalty at 13:50 to give the Kraken a 5-on-3 advantage.
But they failed to score despite some great chances against Kings goalie Jonathan Quick and finished the night 0-for-5 with the man advantage.
Andreas Athanasiou added an empty-net goal with a minute remaining and Grubauer pulled for the extra attacker.
Nobody’s really that sure why the Kings have defied expectations while the Kraken, now on a four-game losing streak after playing better-than-.500 hockey the prior six weeks, have the league’s third worst record. The plan heading into the season was for the Kraken to stay close all the way through in a weak division and perhaps even sneak into a playoff spot the way the Kings just did.
The division didn’t start off weak, but sure finished about as expected. It’s the only division in hockey with fewer than three 100-point teams and the favored Vegas Golden Knights stumbled down the stretch and stunningly were eliminated from playoff contention on Wednesday.
The Kraken had beaten the Kings 6-1 a month ago in Los Angeles and jumped out to a 2-0 lead by early in the second period of this one. Jared McCann scored his team-leading 27th goal late in the opening period and then Ryan Donato added another in the middle frame on a brilliant individual effort.
But then the Kings, outshot 12-2 in the opening frame and perhaps still savoring their playoff qualification of the previous night, unleashed a barrage of goals midway through the second — several of them off sticks of players left uncovered directly in front of goalie Grubauer.
“I think that’s kind of been the storyline of the last four or five games,” Eberle said of a Kraken squad that also blew two-goal leads last week and lost in Minnesota and Dallas. “We’ve played periods where we’ve played really, really well, and we’ve had periods where we’ve been absolutely horrible.
“So, we haven’t been able to put together 60 minutes yet in the last little bit here. … When you work so hard for the majority of the game to give yourself a lead and find a way to win and then you blow it in a short amount of time — that’s all it takes.”
The Kings finally saw their work rewarded midway through the period when Vilardi was left uncovered and got off a quick wrist shot that beat Grubauer to cut the Kraken’s lead to 2-1.
Just over three minutes later, Viktor Arvidsson outraced Carson Soucy for a long dump-in pass and centered it back out to Danault for a quick bang-bang goal that tied the game. The Kraken managed to regain the lead only 48 seconds later when Eberle took a Matty Beniers pass, walked in deep and beat Kings goalie Quick from the slot.
But Trevor Moore tied it 3-3 fewer than three minutes before intermission, redirecting a Matt Roy slap shot while standing untouched just to Grubauer’s right.
Kraken coach Dave Hakstol suggested his team had started the defensive lapses earlier on, including several odd-man rushes against that were stymied by Grubauer or defenders.
And ultimately, that lack of shfit-to-shift consistency could be a big reason why the Kings are playoff bound and not the Kraken.
“There’s certain areas where we don’t quite match up yet to do it every single shift,” Hakstol said. “My point is, you have to be able to take on that battle and take on that fight. You have a choice: you can abdicate from that or you can take it on.
“And we need to continue looking for people that are willing and able to take on that battle every single time.”
Donato agreed the Kraken played differently once they went up by two.
“When we score goals sometimes you think it’s going to be an easy night,” Donato said. “I’m not pointing a finger at anybody but sometimes the whole team takes a couple of shifts off and they come right back in the net.
“We’re not good enough to take shifts off, so we’ve got to make sure we’re attentive every time. We weren’t tonight.”