Los Angeles Kings still pushing to join ranks of the elite after overtime loss to Penguins

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LOS ANGELES — The test for the Kings wasn’t Wednesday night at T-Mobile Arena. They had to be up for that, to invest study time and rest up. That was the Vegas Golden Knights on their home ice. The Stanley Cup champions. The team they’ll battle for supremacy in the Pacific Division, the one they essentially played to a draw in a shootout loss last month, the one they may have to go through when it’s playoff time.

That exam was aced. The Kings grabbed the lead and put the squeeze on them. A nationally televised decisive 4-1 victory that had the TNT studio show crew raving about them. A late one in the Pacific time zone but a broader audience could view the clinical dismantling, nonetheless. Their stars and depth pieces are better than the rival they basically emulate in roster construction. It was impressive stuff.

The real challenge was Thursday’s follow-up quiz against Pittsburgh. Little time to prepare. Being back in the comforts of home where an easy distraction could be welcomed. Sure, it was Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, etc. You get up to face those future Hall of Famers and the longtime dangerous support talents like Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. But the Penguins are now like an Oscar-winning actor trying to stay relevant in a fledgling TV show. Looking to recapture past glory.

Rust did just that to cap off their three-game California sweep, putting a wraparound through Pheonix Copley for a 4-3 overtime victory after having an apparent winner taken off the board when a review showed that he was decidedly offside. This one counted and it stopped the Kings’ four-game winning streak, denying them a chance to stretch it on the second half of a back-to-back where coach Todd McLellan correctly noted that their game lacked sharpness.

Still, the Kings have gained points in eight straight games. Six of them have been wins and all but one has been with Cam Talbot in net. Talbot got the night off after a 37-save effort Wednesday. The 36-year-old was a question mark before the season. He has been a stellar answer in the first month of action, delivering a 2.03 goals-against average and .930 save percentage.

The same can’t be said for Copley, their season saver from a year ago who’s now a struggling little-used backup. Rust’s score was the second wrapround shot that got by him as Crosby also went from behind the net on his backhand in the first period. Copley hadn’t played since Oct. 27 at Arizona where he got pulled after giving up three goals on six shots. Now he has a .792 save percentage in his four games. Ironically, it rose in the 16-save outing.

Pittsburgh’s four goals came on just 20 shots. Asked if his confidence in Copley is waning, Kings coach Todd McLellan said, “No. Because we’ve seen him do it over and over again. He’s played six, seven periods for us this year and we’re going to lose confidence in him? Not a chance. He’s a good goaltender.

“Our guys believe in him and it’s hard when you haven’t played for a while. We played back-to-back. He got the sh—y end of the schedule but that’s the way it goes. Would he like to have one back? Yeah. But we’d also like to have the shorthanded goal back and that’s on the team.”

If the shaky play of their backup goalie is the biggest problem, then McLellan and the Kings are in good shape even with Thursday’s loss. A win attached to a statement made in Las Vegas, though, would have slapped more concrete on a narrative that they once had a decade ago. Being a genuine contender to not only play for the Cup but win it.

At 8-2-3, Los Angeles is emerging as the chief challenger to Vegas in the Western Conference. Vancouver, with a driving Rick Tocchet behind the bench and its stars Elias Pettersson, Quinn Hughes and Thatcher Demko playing at a high level, has instilled hope among the fan base after recent dismal seasons. If the Canucks keep operating at an .800 points percentage clip and start taking down more top-tier teams, they can be viewed as a serious threat. Dallas and Colorado should be the class of the Central and could get to the conference finals.

But the Kings weren’t demolished by the Golden Knights as the Avalanche recently were in a 7-0 thrashing. They haven’t been blanked like the Stars were in last week’s road loss to the Canucks. None of those Western powers have gone 7-0-0 on the road like they have. The Kings do trail Vegas and Vancouver as of Thursday night’s standings. They also look like a team with staying power for the next six months.

Few teams have their kind of depth. Goals have come from 16 different skaters in the first 13 contests. Fourth-line winger Carl Grundstrom scored his fifth of the year in the first period, giving the Kings four with five or more. You expect Anze Kopitar, the picture of consistency as their stalwart captain now with 400 goals, and an assist Thursday that made him the franchise’s second-leading point producer with 1,155 to be among L.A.’s top scorers. You don’t expect Trevor Moore to have seven goals to tie Kopitar for the team lead.

Now Adrian Kempe is starting to get hot after a hard-luck start. His snipe midway from the left circle after Mikey Anderson’s lead pass pushed him to six goals after scoring for the fourth time in five games. It is a welcome sight for the Kings, who have come to see the Swede develop into their top sniper after consecutive 35-goal and 41-goal seasons.

Quinton Byfield is shooting upward. An assist Thursday gave him 11 points in his last eight games. The goals remain elusive but if he keeps getting his shot off and improving his accuracy as he is now doing, those will start arriving. His play-driving numbers are outstanding and his backchecking creates turnovers and extra opportunities for the Kings.

If anything, Kevin Fiala and PL Dubois haven’t consistently cooked as a duo. The two did play a role in the tying third-period goal as Dubois had a rebound chance off Jordan Spence’s initial burst up ice and deflected pass attempt while Fiala came in for a follow try that got past Penguins goalie Magnus Hellberg, giving Fiala his second goal of the season.

That’s how deep the Kings are. The second-most potent offense (behind Vancouver) with Fiala scoring only once before Thursday. And they were in position to grab a win on a night where they didn’t connect on many passes and had their middling power play allowed a shorthanded goal to Pittsburgh’s Lars Eller.

It is a team at its evolution where it can win games with far from its best effort. Facing Crosby would not be a letdown game in just about all instances, but this was more of a mental test for the Kings on short rest following a performance against the Golden Knights that was nearly perfect in execution.

“These are the type of games that you want to win,” Kempe said. “We were talking about it going into the third. Good teams come out with a win in these type of games and obviously tonight we didn’t. So, obviously we got to go back and look at what we could have done differently. But I think we’ve been showing the last couple of weeks that we’re a good enough team to beat these type of teams.”

The follow-up to an A-plus game in Vegas was something closer to a B-minus showing a night later. But that may be the Kings’ next step toward being a first-tier power, especially with whom they’ll deal with in the West. The ability to still grab wins and points when they don’t have all their cylinders firing.

“I’d like to think so,” McLellan said. “I’d like to think that on nights where you’re a little bit sloppy — you’re not going to be your best for 82 games. There’s going to be your best game and your worst game in 82. It doesn’t matter if you win or lose them. I don’t know where this one will fit in. But you have to find ways to scratch and claw points out of those nights and at least we got one tonight.”

With Edmonton in dire straits, Seattle being erratic and Calgary just starting to get its act together, the Kings could create more separation from those three by keeping up their consistent play and putting more stretches together like the 6-0-2 run they’re currently on. They’re deep enough and potentially good enough to take aim at the NHL’s best and join their ranks. An overtime defeat shouldn’t get in their way.

(Photo of Ryan Graves and Trevor Moore: Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

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