Hey, look at that! It’s hockey season. And not only hockey season, a Battle of California rivalry game against the San Jose Sharks, who on their
first second third fourth try nabbed Erik Karlsson to place an exclamation point on a summer in which Doug Wilson had assets burning a hole in his pocket that were exchanged for a much sturdier wedge to prop open their championship window. And though early-season games are often demonstrations of slop and special teams work, Friday’s game was largely a tense, entertaining opener – once the Kings clawed back from an early 2-0 deficit that had roots in the Sharks playing close to game speed while Los Angeles searched for a better grip on their first of 246 periods this season. And, yes, there was some slop, there were also standout performances on both sides that raised the level of play and intensity and provided a few encouraging signals. (That Donskoi-Suomela-Kane third line will create difficult match-ups, especially when San Jose returns home.)
In a tied game, Austin Wagner would’ve liked to have buried one of his three breakaways, but that he was able to generate them against a team as stingy as San Jose is a good sign. There should probably be a honeymoon period before his game-breaking speed becomes more widely broadcast, and he’ll need to take advantage of this early-season stretch before teams make the inevitable adjustments against him. Though he didn’t score – and was largely pinned back territorially – he still showed the ability to beat defenders and play the type of game that allowed him to find success at other levels. The Kopitar line was the Kings’ best, and Alex Iafallo was again the grease that allowed his linemates’ spokes to rotate without friction. He was excellent, and along with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe, among the best L.A. forwards on the ice. For a first outing, there were aspects of Ilya Kovalchuk’s game that were promising, and others that will need some tinkering. His dangle and laser-pass through half the bodies on the ice in the third period was one of those no no no no no no YES plays, but the degree of skill needed to make that play is something the Kings badly covet and representative of John Stevens’ observations that he’s nearly every bit a playmaker as he is a shooter. Once he gets comfortable on the power play – I don’t think we’re expecting to permanently see him so close to the net, but rather in an area where he’ll be expected to fire off his trademark shot – that success should transfer over to all areas of his game. Alec Martinez was very good at positioning himself to defend several dangerous rush chances in a game in which the Kings dominated most of the second period but weren’t able to break through with a third goal before the Sharks found their fins over the final 20 minutes of regulation.
Like all single-point games, the beauty of it depended heavily on the eye of the beholder. Fall behind by two, gain a point? That’s good! But it’s only one point from a home divisional game? That’s bad. Kill an important penalty against a high-octane unit late in regulation to earn said point? That’s good! Struggle on the power play and spend a disproportionate amount of time in your own zone early on the man advantage? That’s bad. Overtime and shootout losses are essentially qualifiers whose narrative impact isn’t learned for a few games down the line. When the team has won three in a row, loses an overtime game, and then wins another two, that’s a good overtime loss. When the team’s stuck in the doldrums and needs points and comes away with only one, that’s not quite as good. It’s not easy to contextualize a single point in a season opener. It’s almost like (but not quite) opening a game of bowling with a spare. If the Kings win Sunday’s game against Detroit, 1-0-1 isn’t a bad way at all to head out into an early-season road trip through some difficult buildings. If they drop Sunday’s game, 0-1-1 won’t nearly be as nourishing. But against one of LAKI’s Four Sure Western Conference Playoff Bets – also looking at you, Vegas, Winnipeg and Nashville – Los Angeles provided a baseline from which they’ll be able to tinker and tailor their game, and it was a better perch from which to start when compared with several other recent season and home openers.
-Lead photo via Adam Pantozzi/NHLI