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Helene Elliott

Young Kings do their learning on the ice

October 12, 2008|Helene Elliott

SAN JOSE -- The Kings are selling hope this season.

Hope that players they've anointed as their leaders will guide the franchise out of the darkness.

Hope that Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, their youngest and most gifted defensemen, will endure a minimum of pain as they learn the nuances of playing a challenging position in a physically punishing conference.

Above all, they're selling the notion that better days are coming, though they can't quite say when.

It may be a very tough sell.

The debut of the new, young Kings Saturday in a 3-1 loss to the Sharks at the HP Pavilion was alarmingly like many games played by the bad, old Kings of recent seasons.

They were muscled off the puck. Prone to turning the puck over. Unable to sustain much offensive pressure: They took 13 shots and allowed 41 by the fleet and formidable Sharks.

San Jose is good. Probably Western Conference-finalist good. The additions of defensemen Rob Blake and Dan Boyle enhanced their transition game and will boost their power play.

But the Kings did not compete well after the first period, and that's the most disheartening aspect of all.

There was little hope to sell after a four-shot second period and a four-shot third period that barely forced Shark goaltender Evgeni Nabokov to break a sweat.

"We've got to be a lot better out there," said King goalie Jason LaBarbera, whose teammates credited him with keeping them in the game for the first 20 minutes. "Obviously it wasn't the start we were looking for.

"We've got to have more jump. We just looked like we were flat-footed out there and we were watching them skate around us."

The day had begun so promisingly, with an early-morning announcement that No. 1 center Anze Kopitar had signed a seven-year, $47.6-million contract extension.

Like Dustin Brown, who made his debut as the team's captain, Kopitar saw enough reasons to relinquish a shot at free agency and commit to spending his prime years with the Kings.

A shining morning faded into a deflating evening. The Kings did score first, on a power-play one-timer by Alexander Frolov at 6:34 of the first period, but that would be it except for a couple of shots that clanged off the posts.

After Devin Setoguchi brought the Sharks even at 1:12 of the second period by converting the rebound of a shot by Marc-Edouard Vlasic, the Sharks got renewed life.

"They really dug in from there," Terry Murray said after losing in his debut as the Kings' coach.

The Kings only dug themselves a hole. Although Doughty played decently and was only a minus-1, Brown was minus-3. Kopitar was minus-2. Both were on the ice for the short-handed goal by San Jose's Tomas Plihal at 17:49 of the second period that gave the Sharks a lead they protected well and extended on an even-strength goal by Joe Pavelski 63 seconds into the third period.

Johnson was on the ice for all four goals. On Plihal's 20-foot wrist shot, Johnson was trying to force the Sharks center to the outside but Plihal unleashed a wicked shot that LaBarbera had little chance of stopping.

Afterward, as the Kings packed their equipment bags for the flight back to Los Angeles for their home opener tonight -- also against the Sharks -- Kopitar was glum.

"We've got to win more battles. We just have to play with a little more grit," he said. "Skill is not going to take over, especially not against this big team that they have over there. We've got to play physical.

"Maybe it's a good thing that we play them right away," he added, "so we can look back at this game and correct the mistakes we did tonight."

In Murray's eyes, there are many errors that need correcting.

He estimated that probably half of San Jose's shots resulted from giveaways by the Kings or failures to clear the puck out of their own zone.

In training camp he emphasized puck management and limiting opponents' shots. The Kings showed no mastery of those lessons Saturday.

They can't just hope for better. They must make themselves better against San Jose -- which appears six times on their schedule -- and everyone else.

"If we're going to make any kind of a move up, we have to do that," Murray said. "We need to learn a lot from this game, that we need to dig in and compete at a higher level."

Is that too much to hope for? We'll find out in the next 81 games, starting tonight.

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Helene Elliott can be reached at helene.elliott@latimes.com.

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HOCKEY ON THE WEB

For notes about the Kings and Ducks, go to latimes.com/kings, latimes.com/ducks.

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