SAN JOSE — If any doubts remained that the Kings' playoff journey this spring will be tougher than last year's relatively smooth path to the Stanley Cup, those doubts were shredded Tuesday in the jaws of a bunch of fast-moving, hungry Sharks.
The Kings began postseason play without their two most physical defensemen, Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell, but cobbled a lot of moving parts together and relied on an increasingly sharp Jonathan Quick to rally past St. Louis after losing the first two games of that first-round series. The strain of filling unfillable holes showed sometimes and Darryl Sutter's lineups and line combinations got scrambled far more often than they were last spring, but they somehow found ways to compensate.
BOX SCORE: San Jose 2, Kings 1
Their 2-1 loss to San Jose at HP Pavilion left the teams tied at two games each as the series returns to Staples Center for Game 5 on Thursday, and it emphasized how laborious this playoff trail has become. The Kings got Greene back Tuesday, but losing Jarret Stoll to a suspected concussion, being unable to stop muscular and marauding defenseman-turned-forward Brent Burns, and getting no production from the Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams line hurt them again.
Those 3-0 series leads the Kings built in all four rounds last spring? That was then, this is now.
"You're not supposed to do that," center Mike Richards said, managing a weak smile.
VIDEO: Dustin Brown postgame interview
The team that lost four playoff games last spring has lost four in 10 games. The team that won 10 of 11 road games last spring is still stuck at one road win, at St. Louis in Game 5 in the first round.
The Kings played about 30 minutes of good hockey Tuesday and dominated the third period as the wilting Sharks produced only two shots at Quick. But by then, it was too late for them to salvage one of the two games here — and guarantees they'll have to return to San Jose for a sixth game Sunday.
Richards, who scored the Kings' only goal when he stuffed a power-play rebound past Antti Niemi at 9:46 of the third period, acknowledged the team was caught flat-footed by the Sharks' forceful start. But he said he drew encouragement from the Kings' late push and 14-2 edge in shots in the third period.
"We've got some good character in here," he said. "It's obviously a point where we have to look at things and see what we can do and look at what we did in the second half to have success....
VIDEO: Mike Richards postgame interview
"When we started playing more of our system and got our legs going, I thought we played well."
Not quite well enough for long enough.
A too-quick whistle took away what should have been a goal for Dustin Penner at 6:06 of the second period with San Jose holding a 2-0 lead, but there were plenty of other chances for the Kings to be aggressive and test the Sharks' poise, and still they were held to a single goal for the second straight game.
"As far as play goes, I thought we started to come on as the game went on," defenseman Rob Scuderi said, "but if we're not going to learn from our mistakes and have a good start, we're going to be behind in the series in no time."
That never happened last spring.
"This one is different, definitely. Last year by this time we were up, 3-0," Kopitar said before the game.
"But every playoff run is different. I'm sure you ask any other guy and they'd say what happened last year, happened last year. You certainly gain some experience from that and you learn from it but it's a different ballgame this time around."
Another difference, center Colin Fraser said, is that opponents get geared up to beat the defending champion Kings.
"Last year we came in as maybe an underdog, quietly. Got off to the right start just because teams weren't really ready for us," he said. "But this time around that's not the case. They realize we are a good team and they're ready to go against us, right off the get-go."
That's one of many reasons no team has repeated as champion since the Detroit Red Wings won in 1997 and 1998. The Kings can still keep this run going, if they learn to navigate the bumps in the road.