Playing their first home game in three weeks on New Year’s Eve, the Kings kept any would-be party crashers at bay with an effective, fast and seemingly emotional and important win by holding off the rival Sharks with a performance that both combined the effort and work ethic of several recent games with the ability to bury the puck when presented with an opportunity. They established a very good pace early, and five minutes into the game, as Nic Dowd’s line kept the puck deep and allowed a piece-by-piece offensive zone line change, Kyle Clifford battled Micheal Haley at the end of a good shift and seemed to sustain energy and emotion in the building, even if most of the fight involved maintaining a strong tug on each others’ jerseys. The fight followed a key Peter Budaj blocker save on Joonas Donskoi some two minutes earlier, setting the stage for Tanner Pearson to scoop up a loose puck near the blue line and rip a high-glove wristshot from the tops of the circles to open the scoring as Los Angeles established an early advantage and forced San Jose to fight from behind for the remaining 55:43. As the Kings built on their lead by etching out another strong start to a period, gradually the Sharks found their footing over the second half of the second, even though a multi-goal deficit forced them to change up their game a little bit in getting numbers deep, allowing Los Angeles to create a few rush chances in the other direction over the latter half of the middle 20 minutes.
The Kings led 2-0 after two periods. As is universally understood, a worst-case scenario, apart from a meteor or something resembling the Outbreak movie theater scene inside Staples Center, would be an early goal against to begin the third. The opportunistic Sharks cashed in on their more solidified presence in the game as Brent Burns, who turns any shot from any location in the offensive zone into a dangerous shot, snapped a puck low to the ground that skidded past Budaj to halve his team’s deficit 12 seconds into the period. Shortly after play resumed, on a breakout executed as crisply as you’ll see during rushes at a morning skate, Alec Martinez dropped the puck off the end boards to Jake Muzzin, who advanced it left to Pearson. Pearson found Jeff Carter on a slant across the center of the ice, and from there, either Carter or some sort of upright gazelle in skates blew past Justin Braun, and by the time David Schlemko had recovered from looking over his wrong shoulder, had potted the would-be game-winner by catching a sliver of an opening above Martin Jones’ glove with a beautiful wristshot. Who else can shoot like that having covered half the ice so effortlessly on a high-speed rush? (Note: Patrick Laine and Winnipeg will make their first of two Staples Center visits on this next homestand.) Carter’s MVP performance this season on the surface seems like his 2012-13 campaign; he’s on pace for his second career 40-goal season.
There are some comparisons to Carter’s 2012-13 season that are applicable, but not all are strong. Los Angeles’ power play was better that year, and the team as a whole scored more goals per game. The forward, who turns 32 today, accounted for 19.8% of the team’s goals that year, rather than the 22.0% he’s provided this season. More importantly, he also picked up a greater degree of the scoring that season as Anze Kopitar shot a career-low 10.2% and went the final 16 games of the season without a goal. (Kopitar’s 4.3% rate this season is guaranteed to produce either one of two things: a massive market correction and a blistering second half, or word after the season that he was battling through something serious that affected his shot.) Team-wise, the Kings are where they stated they needed to be during its early-season injury calamity: within the pack, hanging tough and in a clear battle for a playoff position. Along with this Tuesday’s rematch up north, an extremely important part of the schedule arises. Should the team take advantage of its seven-game homestand, they’ll go a ways towards solidifying some competitive muscle that their neighbors in the standings will be forced to match.