After consecutive home losses, Kings left grasping for any shreds of hope vs. Oilers

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You don’t have to know anything about hockey to know the Kings are in trouble heading back to Edmonton for Game 5 of their first-round NHL playoff series with the Oilers.

Just knowing how to count is knowledge enough.

After Sunday’s 1-0 loss at the Crypt, the Kings trail the best-of-seven series three games to one. That makes Wednesday’s game a must-win for the Kings. So is anything that comes after that.

“Yeah, our back are against the wall,” center Phillip Danault said. “Nothing to lose. One game at a time. Pressure’s on them. Give everything you’ve got.”

A pained grin creased his face.

“All the cliches,” he said.

It doesn’t seem right that, after a regular season that both started and finished in record-setting fashion, the Kings find themselves just a loss away from bowing out of the playoffs with a whimper, not a bang.

The Kings won their first 11 road games of the season under coach Todd McLellan, breaking the NHL record. Then, after McLellan was fired and assistant Jim Hiller was promoted to take his place in February, the team won eight in a row at home at the end of the season, matching the team’s longest home winning streak in 32 years.

Yet now, after back-to-back home losses, the Kings are a road loss away from a long offseason.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this, of course. Two years ago, in the first round of the playoffs, the Oilers eliminated the Kings in seven games. Last year they did it in six. Now it could happen in five.

After averaging nearly 3 ¼ goals at home during the regular season, the Kings scored once at the Crypt in two playoff games. The team isn’t progressing, it’s regressing. But it’s a hole the team dug for itself.

It’s once-vaunted penalty kill, second in the league during the regular season, has been torched in this series, with the Oilers scoring eight times in 15 man-advantage opportunities, the latest coming in the second period Sunday to decide Game 4. The Kings’ own power play, meanwhile, has been powerless, going 0 for 11, the latest whiff coming in the third period of Sunday’s loss when they didn’t even get off a shot.

The Oilers have scored 18 times in the four games and their big three of Zach Hyman, Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid have combined for 10 goals and 15 assists. Still the Kings aren’t dead yet (the vital signs, however, are really weak).

But as Danault, who apparently has never heard a cliché he won’t repeat, knows, the series isn’t over until it’s over.

In 2021, when he was in Montreal, the Canadiens lost three of their first four games in a first-round series with Toronto, only to rally with a pair of overtime victories that helped them win the series. That team made it to the Stanley Cup Final.

“So we’ve got to believe. And it’s got to be there,” Danault said.

If the Kings need any encouragement — and clearly they do — they may have gotten some in Sunday’s loss, because while the result wasn’t what they wanted, the performance was. The Kings outshot the Oilers 33-13; outplayed, outhit and outhustled them; and managed to stay out of the penalty box for most of the night.

They also rolled the dice by replacing goaltender Cam Talbot with backup David Rittich, who had an awful playoff record, having given up eight goals in 32 minutes. Rittich was near perfect Sunday, becoming just the fourth goalie to hold the high-octane Oilers to a goal or less in 39 games — a streak Rittich started when he shut Edmonton out in early February.

It was a template for a victory even if it ended in a loss.

“It’s the kind of game you’ve got to replicate,” Danault said. “That’s the only way you can win against Edmonton right now. We have to play the same exact way and that’s going to give us a big chance.”

“The preparation, the effort, it’s right there,” added Hiller. “So to summon that back up again. It’s not like we have to go and find that. It’s right there. So it should not be that difficult.”

Trevor Moore said it’s now a game of follow the leader.

“The leadership in this [locker] room is second to none,” he said. “It’s just game by game. It’s wake up, go to practice and, you know, just keep getting better.”

But those leaders have to show up on the ice, too — Moore included. He led the team with 31 goals and had 26 assists during the regular season, but he has just just a goal in the playoffs. And while captain Anze Kopitar has a goal and two assists in the series, all three points came in the same game. Then there’s Pierre Luc-Dubois, who the Kings acquired last summer then signed to an eight-year, $68-million contract. He has just a goal in the series, didn’t take a shot in 35 shifts combined in the two home games and has just one shot in the last three games combined.

“The message is just stick with it. Stick with our game and play the same way and we’ll get rewarded,” Danault said. “Normally we do. So we’ve got to keep playing the same way and we’ll get rewarded next game, I guess.”

If they don’t, anyone who can count to four will be able to count the Kings out.

“Our backs are against the wall,” Danault repeated. “So nothing to lose.”

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