Kings’ shootout loss to Vegas a litmus test against Stanley Cup champs: ‘Still work to do’

LOS ANGELES — The season isn’t even a month old and neither team has even played 10 games yet. But with the Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings meeting Saturday night, it wasn’t too early to think that it was a way for both to measure where they stood against each other.

Especially for the Kings in relation to the Golden Knights. The hosts want to eventually get to where the Knights are – the reigning Stanley Cup champions whose 7-0-0 start was the best for a defending titlist until Chicago tripped them up in overtime. There are many steps the Kings must take to reach that level, with getting out of the first round being an obvious one. Spring is still very much off in the distance.

But Saturday’s initial regular season matchup was a good way for the Kings to take their temperature against a top-flight club. Especially the one they’ll try to track down in the Pacific Division and, if their season doesn’t go off the rails, possibly must go through if they want to conjure up that championship feeling of a decade ago.

Nothing is going to be decided this early in the season. Still, the 4-3 shootout loss to the Golden Knights did tell the Kings a little bit about themselves. With playoff nemesis Edmonton being stuck in mud to start the season, they could emerge as the most direct contender to knock the champs down a peg over the next few months. (Shoutout, though, to Vancouver and its promising 5-2-1 start.)

At least, these are the kind of expectations the Kings took into this season of being more than a one-and-done participant.

“They’re the Stanley Cup champions,” Kings forward Trevor Lewis said. “They got what we want. Every game against them is going to be tough. We came out hard. Just unfortunate not to get both points.”

The teams were dealt the same schedule hand with Vegas making the short flight to Los Angeles after losing at home on Friday and the Kings coming back from Arizona following their big rally against the Coyotes. Erasing a 4-1 first-period deficit in the desert will have you flying high and for the Kings, it made for four wins in five games after season-opening home losses to Colorado and Carolina.

But the four wins – Winnipeg, Minnesota and Arizona twice – didn’t exactly come against the league’s ruling powers. A bigger statement could have been made Saturday and the Kings cleared their throat with a goal from impressive rookie Alex Laferriere in the first period and a lead-building score from old hand Lewis less than five minutes into the second.

It was a nice moment for both, who are at different ends of the career spectrum. The newly 22-year-old Laferriere, playing his eighth NHL game, putting in a rebound after a power move by PL Dubois for his second goal and joining Bob Berry (1970) and Gary Shuchuk as the third Kings rookie to score on his birthday. And for the 36-year-old Lewis, his goal came in his 900th game as the two-time Stanley Cup champ begins his second tour of duty with the club.

What really mattered is the Kings had a 2-0 lead. And that woke up the sluggish Golden Knights, who pulled even with scores from bottom-six forwards Michael Amadio and William Carrier heading into the third. Vegas grabbed their first lead on Mark Stone’s power-play snipe past goalie Cam Talbot at 6:26 of the third.

The Kings got a four-minute power play courtesy of Laferriere drawing a high-sticking double minor penalty on Golden Knights forward Ivan Barbashev, but they couldn’t cash in. While their scoring depth has already been a big part of leading the NHL with 4.38 goals per game, the power play that was fourth-ranked and potent last season has been hit and miss in the early going.

Part of that is top finisher Adrian Kempe hasn’t gotten untracked with just two empty-net goals. But the Kings flourished a year ago on the man advantage because they had two dangerous units. It’s different now with Sean Durzi traded to Arizona and Viktor Arvidsson out indefinitely after needing to undergo another back surgery after having a major procedure done in the summer of 2022.

They’ve got new pieces on the second unit with Jordan Spence as the quarterback up top and Trevor Moore and Quinton Byfield getting increasing roles on it. Meanwhile, the first unit is trying to find the right chemistry with Dubois essentially taking the place of the departed Gabriel Vilardi.

“We used to have Arvy, a right (shot) at the net,” Phillip Danault said. “It was different. Now we have ‘Q’, which is a lefty. It’s a little different. We have to run new plays. … It’s a little different. I don’t think we’ve been that badly. We moved the puck well. I think our first PP as well. It’s just a matter of time.”

Defeat loomed as the clock ticked down in regulation. But with Talbot pulled for an extra attacker, Drew Doughty ripped a slap shot through some bodies in front past Vegas goalie Logan Thompson for a 3-3 tie with 63 seconds left to secure one point. It was Doughty’s fourth goal of the season and third in two nights.

Drew Doughty looks invigorated on the offensive side this season. (Yannick Peterhans / USA Today)

The Kings’ longtime star on the back end looks invigorated on the offensive side. His slapper appears to have something extra on it, with him uncorking blast after blast Friday that netted him two against Arizona. “I think he figured out some things,” Danault said. “You can see the fire in his eyes. He’s back. We need him big-time like this. He’s been scoring some big goals and we’ve been getting some huge points like this. Every game counts and he’s present every game.”

Doughty’s inexhaustible tank to play huge effective minutes at both sides of the rink as one of this generation’s decorated and greatest defensemen is what will carry him to the Hockey Hall of Fame. But the Kings will take this early resurgence for the 33-year-old. He had nine goals last season and looked like he can hit double digits for the first time in six years.

“It’s nice to see, isn’t it?” McLellan said. “It’s there. He’s got a shot, and he has the green light to take it any time. There’s ever any forwards or D that are looking at him going, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ Take it. I think he’s feeling it now. He’s almost giving himself permission to use it a little bit more. Back-to-back nights when he’s been able to put a few in, that’s good for his confidence.”

The nip-and-tuck game was decided by a Jack Eichel shootout goal and Thompson foiling all three Kings shooters after making 36 stops in regulation and overtime. Talbot stopped 27 shots and it’s clear that he is L.A.’s No. 1 in net with Pheonix Copley struggling. Otherwise, there wasn’t a whole lot that separated them and the Golden Knights on this evening.

McLellan called it “a hell of a game” and pointed to both deep teams getting a goal from their fourth lines, penalty killing units that got the job done in key moments and clutch goals in the third when they had an advantage. If this is a step toward closing the gap with the champions, the Kings will take it. “You don’t lift that thing by accident,” he said. “You’re a good team when you do that.”

“They are the measuring stick obviously,” McLellan said. “They’ve earned that right. And we were able to play a pretty good game right there with them. When you compare that to maybe what we did against Colorado, Carolina (and) Boston – some of the other if you want to call them upper-echelon teams or supposedly based on their past – I thought (we) played this one better than those others.”

Said Lewis: “It was a very good game. Both teams played well. There wasn’t a whole lot of room out there.”

Are the Kings closer to being among the elite teams? A 4-2-2 record doesn’t say that they’re a runaway train. But their coach is feeling better about the current direction.

“More so than it did three weeks ago against some of these better teams,” McLellan said. “Still work to do.”

Truer words could not have been spoken.

(Photo of Cam Talbot: Gary A. Vasquez / NHLI via Getty Images)

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