Elliott: Kings find themselves at a tipping point as 'tough trip' looms

Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar waits for the puck to drop during the first period.

Before departing for their longest trip this season, the Kings put one last item into their collective memory, if not their largest suitcases: another blown lead that turned into their fourth straight game without a win, their longest drought this season.

Their 4-3 shootout loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday extended their winless streak to four games and wasn’t an inspiring farewell for a trip that will take them to the halfway point of the season by the time they return to Arena on Jan. 18. This road swing looms as a tipping point for a team whose scoring has tailed off and whose power play has fizzled, scoring only once in 22 opportunities over the last seven games after an 0-for-2 effort Thursday.

Each of the six teams they’ll face had a points percentage of .538 or better through Thursday’s games. So this won’t be a pleasure cruise, even though the Kings’ road record (13-2-1) has been the NHL’s best while their home record (7-7-5) has been awful.

After consecutive first-round playoff eliminations at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers, the Kings entered this season knowing they must win a round or two — or more — to keep moving back toward Stanley Cup contention. They’ve had games in hand on Pacific Division-leading Vancouver and second-place Vegas for a while, but they’ve got to win those games and refocus on protecting leads and getting their top three lines to be productive at the same time.

Read more: Kings fall to Red Wings in a shootout for their fourth consecutive loss

The newly formed trio of Alex Laferriere, Pierre-Luc Dubois and Adrian Kempe rose above the muck Thursday to score twice and displayed good chemistry, certainly a plus. But the Red Wings scored twice on David Rittich in the shootout and the Kings couldn’t get anything past Alex Lyon, who had a 43-save performance.

“At the end of the night we were kind of disappointed with just leaving with one point,” said Kempe, who scored his second goal of the game and 14th of the season on a shot from the right circle to bring the Kings even at 3-3 at 15:43 of the third period. “I think we played good enough to win.”

But they didn’t win, and that makes this trip more important.

“We’re looking to build now and pull ourselves out of this,” coach Todd McLellan said. “Teams are very prepared for us. They have a book on us and we have to find more players on this trip. We found a few more tonight.”

By that he meant the dynamic performance of the Laferriere-Dubois-Kempe line gave the Kings a spark they urgently needed. “They carried the load,” McLellan said.

But even that wasn’t enough for the Kings to protect the 2-0 lead they had built in the first period on Kempe’s goal from near the right post and a long rebound converted by defenseman Matt Roy. Within the last month, the Kings had previously squandered 2-0 leads in losses to the New York Islanders, Edmonton and Winnipeg.

“We’ve got to find other ways to get to three before other teams get to one. And we had plenty of opportunities to get there,” McLellan said. “A lot of those games are similar in that we get to two, we have numerous chances and can’t put it in, and all of a sudden they’re back in the game.”

And too often, when opponents get back in the game, they’ve won the game. “I think we scored three tonight,” a tired Kempe said afterward. “I think that was good enough to win it. Obviously, we let three go in our own net so that’s something we’ve got to clear up.”

But he chose to see the emergence of his line as a positive the Kings can build around. And maybe it will be. It must be, if the Kings are going to do more than tread water.

“We want to keep being an offensive team. In the beginning of the year we scored probably the most goals of any team in the league and we were playing really good defensively as well,” said Kempe, who has scored five goals in his last five games. “We can’t keep scoring six goals a game and keep letting [in] one goal a game. Some games are going to be tighter. It’s the tight games you want to win. It’s the tight games you have to win.”

Now they have to figure out how to do that consistently. McLellan said offense-minded defenseman Brandt Clarke, who was recalled from minor-league Ontario on Wednesday but didn’t play against Detroit, will play during the trip. The Kings lost defenseman Tobias Bjornfot, a 2019 first-round draft pick, when Vegas claimed him off waivers Thursday. Also Thursday, goaltender Cam Talbot was named to the All-Star team for the Feb. 3 festivities in Toronto.

Read more: Kings fall to Maple Leafs at home, registering their third consecutive loss

Clarke should boost the scoring from the defense corps: Roy’s goal Thursday was the first by a Kings defenseman since Vladislav Gavrikov scored Dec. 9.

“It’s going to be a tough trip. A lot of really good teams that we’re going to face,” Kempe said. “Obviously, we’ve been playing well on the road this season. At home we’ve got to pick it up.

“I think we’re pretty confident in any building we go in to and I think it’s going to be a fun trip. A lot of tough games and a really good challenge for us. Just got to keep the road record going that way.”

Their season doesn’t depend on this trip. But the results probably will be a factor when general manager Rob Blake evaluates whether this roster is capable of making that next step in the playoffs, or if his long and sometimes frustrating rebuild isn’t finished yet.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.