LOS ANGELES--The signs were there all along.
But in the flush of the Los Angeles Kings' early scoring success and their hot start -- led by the goaltending acrobatics of feisty Jonathan Quick -- it was easy to overlook that their defensive performances were beginning to unravel.
It didn't seem to matter to anyone other than Coach John Stevens, a former defenseman who was in charge of the team's defense corps before he was promoted to the top job last summer, that they were giving up more scoring chances in dangerous areas than they should have been allowing, because Quick had stopped nearly 94 percent of all the shots he faced. And it wasn't a big deal that the Kings had so many slow starts because they had assembled the NHL's third-best record and had repeatedly showed they could come back and could outscore almost anyone.
It's a big deal now.
The Kings were flat-footed and mostly defenseless through the early and middle stages of their 5-2 loss Thursday night to the Tampa Bay Lightning, who had played the night before in San Jose.
The Kings gave up too many prime scoring chances to a team that has the NHL's best record, a team that -- like the Kings -- used a non-playoff finish last season as inspiration to retool and reconfigure its lineup to compete at the quicker pace now required for success.
The Kings knew the Lighting would present a formidable challenge because of their speed, quick puck movement boosted by a mobile defense and exceptional scoring depth.
After the Kings' morning skate Stevens called Tampa Bay the best team he had seen this season. Defenseman Drew Doughty was effusive in praising the top line of Vladislav Namestnikov, NHL goalscoring leader Nikita Kucherov and league scoring leader Steven Stamkos.
"I don't know if there really is a better line out there right now," Doughty said. "They've got three high-skilled players, high IQ, they all know how to score, they all know how to get open, they all know how to pass. It's just a tough line to play against."
Doughty and the Kings learned just how tough that task it is.