From Newfoundland to Newport Beach, the hue and cry has burned the Kings' ears for weeks: If goaltending didn't fail them in this Stanley Cup tournament, defense most assuredly would.
Sooner or later, one or the other would collapse at the worst possible moment.
Elimination is staring the Kings in the face--they trail the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Campbell Conference final, three games to two, with Game 6 tonight at the Forum--but their predicament has nothing to do with who Charlie Huddy isn't hitting or what Kelly Hrudey isn't stopping.
The Kings' have been vexed by, of all things, their offense.
Their attack, supposedly the strongest in the semifinal field, has nearly ground to a halt. In Game 5 Tuesday, the Kings had 43 shots during the 3-2 overtime loss, but could not finish off several prime opportunities against Felix Potvin.
It almost seems as if the scoring drought is a fast-spreading illness. Starting with left wing Luc Robitaille and center Jimmy Carson, it moved on to others--Corey Millen, Warren Rychel, Mike Donnelly, Jari Kurri, Tomas Sandstrom and Wayne Gretzky, to name more than a few.
Gretzky, though he leads the Kings with one goal and four assists against Toronto, was held pointless and had only two shots in Game 5.
Robitaille, Carson, Donnelly, Millen and Rychel all have one assist. Sandstrom has two points, as does Kurri. Carson, scratched for Game 5 and replaced by Jim Thomson, could return tonight.
As for the widespread lack of scoring, forward Tony Granato put it best when he was asked after Game 4 whether he had talked to the struggling Robitaille.
"Hey, I haven't exactly been lighting it up either," said Granato, who has one goal and one assist against the Maple Leafs.
What really hurt the Kings was the loss of rookie defenseman Alexei Zhitnik, who suffered a mild concussion and head cut when defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre drove him into the end boards midway through overtime.
Zhitnik suffered no residual effects from the concussion, according to trainer Pete Demers, and might return for Game 6. Defenseman Tim Watters, who collided with teammate Marty McSorley in the second period but returned, will be available after having root-canal surgery on Wednesday.
Without Zhitnik's speed and puck-carrying ability, the Kings had problems getting the puck out of their zone and into Maple Leaf territory. Nevertheless, they had chances to win in overtime before right wing Glenn Anderson decided the game at 19:20.
"I was talking with Marty (McSorley), and we were saying this was the first playoff game we deserved to win but didn't," King right wing Dave Taylor said. "I thought we probably played the best game of the series."
Said Robitaille: "We should have won. This is our year. You can't do anything about what happened. Nothing comes easy. You have to get on the ice and get the lead in the first period."
One factor the Kings can cling to for some sort of reassurance is that the Maple Leafs have lost Game 6 in their two previous series, against Detroit and St. Louis. They seem to be a lot like the Kings in making things more difficult than necessary.
If the Maple Leafs have to play three consecutive seven-game series, the dubious accomplishment is believed to be an NHL first. The only lineup change for Toronto will be the return of left wing Mark Osborne, who was scratched from Game 5 to be with his wife, Madolyn, who was expecting their first child. It is uncertain who Toronto will scratch for Game 6.
Nevertheless, the Maple Leafs know they have two shots at getting to the Stanley Cup final to play Montreal. The Kings have no margin for error.
"You can use any of the terms you want--nervousness, tension, desperation," Hrudey said. "The thing is to channel it in the right direction."
Said Granato: "We're going to play hard until somebody tells us to go home."