CHICAGO — If the Kings had been as consistently effective Sunday as Coach Darryl Sutter was in summing up his team's 3-2 loss to the league-leading Chicago Blackhawks, the defending Stanley Cup champions might not be lurching into the second quarter of this abbreviated season with a losing record.
Floored by the Blackhawks' insistent start at the United Center, the Kings (5-6-2) didn't awaken until the third period. Two power-play goals by Mike Richards made it close, but they couldn't catch up, even with a late power play and goaltender Jonathan Quick pulled in favor of an extra skater.
A case of too little too late?
"Too little too early," Sutter said. "We turned pucks over the first period and weren't very sharp."
Even one mistake can be too many against the Blackhawks, who are 12-0-3, the second-longest point streak to start a season in NHL history and one short of the Ducks' record 12-0-4 start in 2006-07.
"They always come out hard in this building. We weren't matching their intensity, their speed, their physical play," said center Anze Kopitar, who had no shots. "A team like that is going to make you pay."
The loss ended the Kings' budding winning streak at two games. They haven't won three games in a row this season — and that might not be their biggest problem.
"We're four points out with one or two games in hand on every team ahead of us. That's the reality," Sutter said. "What is more significant being at the quarter pole is the fact that we have guys with zero goals at the quarter pole. I don't even think I'd be in the lineup if I had zero goals at the quarter pole."
Those "guys" are Drew Doughty — who earned two assists Sunday — Simon Gagne, Trevor Lewis, Dustin Penner and Dwight King. Their struggles aren't the only reason the Kings rank 29th in goals scored, but that's a big part of it.
And there's no reason to expect a boost from minor league Manchester. "We have some young players on defense that didn't play very well tonight and we have some forwards up front that weren't ready for the heavy lifting," Sutter said. "I don't think going to Manchester is going to help that."
The Kings complained, with reason but no result, about Chicago's first goal Sunday. Quick, back in net after backing up Jonathan Bernier for two games, had his stick knocked out of his hands by Chicago's Brandon Bollig during a scramble. Kings defenseman Keaton Ellerby shoved the stick back to Quick, but Bollig pushed it away, leaving Quick helpless to stop an unchecked Brent Seabrook on a backdoor wrist shot at 6:29.
The Kings had been penalized for having too many men on the ice when the Blackhawks scored again. Sutter was upset over that call — both teams had too many men for several seconds — but again, he got no relief. The Blackhawks set up shop in the Kings' zone and scored when Jonathan Toews tipped a shot by Duncan Keith. The puck sat on the goal line and Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi tried to swipe it away but couldn't push it off the line.
"You've got to give them credit. They're a great hockey team," Richards said. "But off the start, we weren't ready to play and they have open looks like Seabrook did right off the bat."
The Blackhawks extended their lead to 3-0 merely 56 seconds into the second period. Toews passed the puck into the slot, where it slid past Doughty and to Patrick Sharp, who ended a 10-game scoring drought.
Sharp was in the penalty box when the Kings scored on Ray Emery 56 seconds into the third period, on Richards' rising shot from just inside the blue line. Toews was serving a penalty for having high-sticked Doughty when Richards struck again at 12:50, on a slap shot from the left circle, but the Kings couldn't get the equalizer.
"Not the way you want to start a season," Richards said. "We've had some ups and downs. We've played some really good games, and some poor games. We have to try to find that consistency on a daily basis and it's got to come soon."
Not even Sutter could have said it better.