Los Angeles Kings left wing Kyle Clifford, right, celebrates his goal with teammates, defenseman Keaton Ellerby, left, and center Jarret Stoll, during the second period of their NHL hockey game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, Friday, Feb. 15, 2013, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - The Los Angeles Kings' defence of their Stanley Cup title looks a whole lot like their championship season so far.
They just haven't got to the good part yet.
The club that turned a rocky regular season into the franchise's first championship last summer is off to another slow start. The Kings climbed out of last place in the Western Conference with a 2-1 win over NHL-worst Columbus on Friday night, winning consecutive games for just the second time this season.
The Kings (5-5-2) have been slowed by everything from injuries and conditioning to a balky power play and a rough schedule during the first quarter of the season—and in a lockout-shortened slate, they realize every game has amplified importance.
Yet Los Angeles still has innate confidence after squeaking into last season's playoffs as the eighth seed and roaring to a 3-0 lead in all four post-season series. Even while injuries and losses piled up in the last few weeks, coach Darryl Sutter's veteran Kings believed they can get healthy and back on their game in time for another post-season run.
"We just have to keep doing the things we've been talking about improving, and we're going to be fine," said Kyle Clifford, the Kings' second-leading scorer with seven points. "We're still confident."
Yet with so many obstacles already in their way after just 12 games, the Kings have learned why no NHL champion has repeated in 15 years since the 1998 Detroit Red Wings. For starters, their best player in last season's playoffs isn't in top form—which is a big problem for a team built around defence.
Jonathan Quick, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner after allowing just 29 goals in 20 playoff games, has allowed 25 goals in just 10 games this season. After posting a ridiculous .946 save percentage in the post-season, he's down to .891 this season while he plays his way back from off-season back surgery.
Quick also isn't getting the usual help from his defence, which is missing half of last season's six regulars due to injuries. Defencemen Willie Mitchell, Matt Greene and Alec Martinez are all out of the lineup with various ailments, forcing the Kings to trade for Keaton Ellerby last week while giving ample ice time to unproven youngsters Davis Drewiske and Jake Muzzin.
But Quick and his coach aren't worried yet.
"Quite honestly, a lot of (Quick's) issues I (blame on) our coaching staff not doing a good enough job with him, starting with me," Sutter said Saturday before the Kings headed to Chicago to take on the NHL-best Blackhawks, who spoiled the Kings' banner-raising party with a 5-2 victory in last month's season opener. "When you have limited practice time, you need more quality out of your goaltenders, and I should pay more attention to it during practice."
With Mitchell, Greene and Martinez all out, Los Angeles must lean heavily on its top three healthy defencemen. While Slava Voynov has responded impressively to increased responsibility with six points, Rob Scuderi is a minus-7. Drew Doughty, the former Norris Trophy finalist who excelled in last season's playoffs, is a minus-9 and hasn't scored a goal despite leading the Kings with more than 27 minutes of ice time per game.
Doughty isn't the only disappointing regular from last season's championship squad.
Simon Gagne, a seven-time 20-goal scorer, hasn't scored a goal this season. Justin Williams has one goal, while Jarret Stoll has two—and they're his only points in 12 games.
"We've got some older guys that still haven't scored a goal this year," Sutter said. "We're actually a quarter of a way into our season, so they're on a pace that's not really (matching their) career averages. We've got to keep working with them."
When Sutter was asked for his evaluation of centre Mike Richards, who scored just his second goal of the season Friday night on a fortunate deflection, the veteran coach was blunt.
"We're trying to watch ice time with these guys," Sutter said. "Some of these guys, quite honest, didn't do what they should have done in the summer. We've had to scale minutes back, and less is more."
Sutter has been similarly unsparing in his evaluation of Dustin Penner, who has been a healthy scratch seven times this season. Although the Kings didn't exactly spend all summer partying with the Cup, they also didn't report to camp as the finely tuned machine they could have been after keeping every player who stepped on the ice during last season's playoffs.
Yet many of the Kings' strengths last season are still strengths, including their puck possession and defensive discipline despite the blue line's major holes. Los Angeles' dismal power play is no longer the NHL's worst, and the Kings are creating ample scoring chances even when they're not converting.
The grinding win over the Blue Jackets was the Kings' only home appearance in a nine-game stretch over the first three weeks of February. After playing 11 of their first 15 games on the road, the Kings will play 13 of 16 at home when they return from their current three-game trip.
"We're very confident in this roster and our abilities," Scuderi said. "I think we proved what we can do last year. We know we've got to prove it again, though."