February 06, 2015

LOS ANGELES (AP) The way their winter is going, the Los Angeles Kings might not even get a chance to defend their crown in the spring.

The Stanley Cup champions are in a profound funk with 31 games left in their regular season. After blowing a third-period lead in their 3-2 loss at Florida on Thursday night, the Kings (21-18-12) have fallen five points behind Vancouver for fourth place in the Pacific Division and the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

With just three wins in their last 15 games, the Kings began the weekend in a 10th-place tie with Minnesota and Dallas, and only two Western teams have fewer victories. While Los Angeles has never been a regular-season juggernaut, even the champs agree that this slump could prevent them from deploying their postseason magic to contend for a third Stanley Cup title in four years.

''Historically, our team has dug down and found a way when our backs are against the wall,'' captain Dustin Brown said. ''We've got to see that again, and the sooner the better.''

Brown has tried to spark his teammates with unusually cutting remarks in recent weeks, saying the Kings ''don't play with enough emotion'' and that their confidence ''comes and goes.''

Until recently, emotion and confidence were hallmarks for the Kings, one of the most impressive playoff teams in recent NHL history. They won two Stanley Cup titles, 10 playoff series and countless must-win games over the past three seasons under coach Darryl Sutter.

But that tenacity has put high mileage on their largely unchanged championship roster: The Kings have played a league-record 64 postseason games over the previous three seasons, capped by last season's 26-game grind into mid-June.

A team that showed uncommon late-game poise for the past three seasons has repeatedly been found wanting this season, losing 19 of their 25 one-goal games.

''We're obviously not the happiest group right now,'' Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told reporters Thursday. ''We're not playing well. We're not winning games when we need to, and we need to start winning games quick. ... (Playoff experience) helps, but sometimes maybe we're relying on that. We just think it's going to happen rather than going out there and making it happen.''

The Kings' biggest lineup deficiency is the absence of defenseman Slava Voynov, who is still serving one of the longest suspensions in NHL history after being arrested in October and charged with felony domestic violence against his wife.

With his trial set for March 2, Voynov's entire NHL career is in doubt. The Kings seem likely to play the whole season without their No. 2 defenseman, who signed a six-year contract extension in 2013.

Although Doughty, their indefatigable All-Star and Norris Trophy candidate, is playing more than 29 minutes per game, Los Angeles' defense just hasn't been the same without Voynov and Willie Mitchell, who was allowed to leave as a free agent. The Kings also gave up on $69 million center Mike Richards, sending the once-prolific scorer to the AHL despite his valuable role on their depth lines.

The Kings lead the league in hits and rank ninth in shots, but the finer points of their game are lacking. Jonathan Quick won the Jennings Trophy last season in front of the NHL's best defensive team, but the Kings are only 14th in goals allowed this season at 2.59 per game.

There is another glaring deficiency: Los Angeles has been solid at home, but absolutely dismal on the road.

The loss to Florida dropped the Kings to just 5-12-6 away from Staples Center. They've lost the first three games of their five-game trip while the Grammys take over their arena.

The only highlight of this trip has been the Kings' White House visit, where President Barack Obama praised them for ''doing the unthinkable'' by turning ''a city with no snow and no ice and no winter into a hockey town.''

Los Angeles still loves its Kings, but if they want to keep up that civic momentum, they'll need a big stretch run.

''There is plenty of time to do what we need to do,'' Brown said. ''Right now, it's in our hands. We still have time to control our destiny. We can't let it drag on to the point where you have to rely on other teams winning and losing games.''

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