Justin Williams is helped off the ice on a stretcher after breaking his leg… (Christian Petersen / Getty…)
From Glendale, Ariz. — Ryan Smyth, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams had looked forward to this day for nearly six weeks, hoping to rekindle the magic they had conjured before Smyth suffered a slow-healing rib injury.
Their reunion lasted 4 minutes 27 seconds -- when Williams, hit cleanly by Phoenix defenseman Ed Jovanovski, caught his right skate and fell badly beneath Kopitar and Jovanovski, breaking his leg.
"Two shifts," Kings Coach Terry Murray said grimly after his team fell to the Coyotes, 3-2, Saturday at Jobing.com Arena.
"When he was coming in front of the bench on the stretcher, pulling his hair, he was hurting. He was hurting a lot."
Murray said Williams, who had eight goals and 24 points in 32 games, would fly home with the team Saturday night and will be re-examined today.
"Very disappointing. It's very disappointing for Willie," Murray said. "He's gone through some injuries the last couple of years that he worked hard to get back to playing a good game. And he was really happy with the line and how everything was going at the start of the year. It's very unfortunate."
It was badly timed, too, for a team that's showing signs of having exhausted the resolve that had been so effective for so long.
The Kings, returning from an eight-day break, have lost back-to-back games for the first time since Nov. 18-21. They've also lost three of their last four games, scoring seven goals in that stretch.
They finished Saturday's game with a six-on-three advantage of more than 40 seconds after the Coyotes took two late penalties and Murray pulled goaltender Jonathan Quick, but they couldn't prevent the Coyotes from tying a franchise record with their ninth straight home victory.
"We had a lot of plays that just didn't connect. Especially at the end, we had a lot of guys with the right idea but didn't connect," defenseman Jack Johnson said.
But he said this isn't the time to panic.
"You can try and learn from it as best you can, but I don't think there's any reason to worry," he said. "It's a long season, a long year and we're still right there in the hunt where we want to be. The good thing about hockey is that you play again in a few days. You get to right a lot of wrongs on Monday."
Williams won't get that chance against Minnesota on Monday. The Kings can replace him with one of the healthy players they scratched Saturday, forward/defenseman Peter Harrold or winger Teddy Purcell, who has one goal in his last 32 games, but neither has Williams' creativity or scoring touch.
Murray said he was hopeful center Jarret Stoll, out three games because of a groin injury, might skate today and return soon.
The Kings' mood was somber, clouded by not knowing the extent of Williams' injury or his absence.
"We were pretty hyped up and Smitty was happy to get him back," Kopitar said. "And a thing like that happens. It's never good.
"For the sake of the team I think Justin is a big player for the team. And just to see your guy going down like that, either way, it's a first-line winger, fourth-line winger, it's always tough."
To their credit, the Kings competed well most of the game. Just 1:22 after Williams was injured and carried off on a stretcher -- accompanied by a sympathetic round of applause from a lively crowd of 16,131 -- Dustin Brown converted the rebound of a shot by Davis Drewiske to give the Kings a 1-0 lead.
Adrian Aucoin tied it at 8:45, coming in from the right point to rifle a 30-foot shot past Quick, and Martin Handzal gave the Coyotes a 2-1 lead at 13:56 on a fluke play. Handzal won a faceoff from Kopitar in the Kings' end and lofted the puck toward the net, where Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi, trying to deflect it out of danger, instead deflected it past Quick.
The Kings tied it at 3:58 of the third on their first power-play goal in six games and Michal Handzus' first goal since Nov. 5, a backhander past Ilya Bryzgalov on the rebound of a Kopitar shot. But Phoenix took the lead for good at 9:20 after a giveaway by Corey Elkins and a deer-in-the-headlights defensive play by Drewiske allowed Keith Yandle to jab home his own rebound.
"We need to be a lot better," Brown said. "It's one of those things where we had a slow start to the game. A long layoff. But those are just excuses. We had ample opportunity to take control of the game and we were unable to do so, especially at the end there."
An unhappy ending, in so many ways.