CHICAGO — For nearly 57 minutes Sunday night, the Kings played the Chicago Blackhawks on even terms, limiting the Blackhawks to only a handful of scoring chances while generating numerous opportunities of their own.
Unfortunately for the Kings, the outcome had already been decided.
Sergei Berezin and Kyle Calder scored in the first 3 minutes 13 seconds, sending the Blackhawks to a 3-1 victory in front of 15,588 in the United Center, most of whom spent the rest of the night urging the Blackhawks to pour it on.
Any further suspense ended early in the third period, when Eric Rasmussen's goal ended goaltender Jocelyn Thibault's bid for his fifth shutout.
"Just a terrible start," Coach Andy Murray said. "We beat them last time in L.A., gave them only 13 shots [in a 4-1 victory Nov. 30], and we knew they were going to come in here pretty hungry tonight....
"Our focus today in preparation was to have a solid start, knowing how the Hawks start here. And then we cough up two goals in the first three minutes?"
He wasn't the only one caught by surprise.
The Kings had won five of six, their most successful stretch since they won six in a row in March, and only a disputed goal in a 2-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes on Dec. 15 stood between them and a six-game unbeaten streak.
But that meant little after Berezin, with a great second effort, scored on a rebound of his own shot at 1:22 of the first period and Calder jammed in a shot from in front at 3:13, goaltender Felix Potvin having lost sight of the puck.
"You've got to be better than that to start the game," defenseman Mathieu Schneider said later, between bites of pizza. "I thought we played all right, but that's not good enough to win on the road. You've got to elevate your game, and I just felt throughout the night that we weren't able to do that.
"We played at the same comfortable level. We have to raise our game and make them play at an uncomfortable level. We just didn't do that.
"It was too easy a game for them."
After scoring 11 goals in two games, the Kings put only one of 25 shots past Thibault. Ziggy Palffy's point-scoring streak ended after seven games, his frustration showing in a third-period roughing penalty against Steve Poapst.
The Blackhawks, 6-1-1 since Dec. 6, increased their lead to 3-0 when Eric Daze scored at the end of an odd-man rush at 16:46 of the second period, taking a drop pass from Mike Sullivan and ripping a shot past Potvin.
Rasmussen's third goal of the season, scored from in front off a deflected pass from Jaroslav Modry, kept the Kings from being shut out for the first time.
Not including the playoffs, when Patrick Roy of the Colorado Avalanche blanked them twice in the last four games of a seven-game first-round series last spring, the Kings have not been shut out in their last 42 games, a stretch that dates to a 4-0 loss March 26 at Vancouver.
But Rasmussen's goal was of little consolation to the Kings, who end their two-game trip tonight against the St. Louis Blues.
"We didn't give ourselves a good chance," Mattias Norstrom said. "We talked about how important the start was to this game. They start hard, especially in their own building, but we put ourselves behind the eight ball. I think we recovered a little ... but too little too late."