The LA Kings, night-to-night, are largely consistent. Their pace has improved, they attack and push play and out-generate their opponents with varying looks that prove difficult to capitalize on and aren’t sustained by overflowing skill or creativity. But night-to-night, minus a few periods here or there against the Panthers or Flyers or the Coyotes in their last visit to Gila River Arena, their detail and work ethic and ability to grasp concepts and apply them in game situations has been a positive. It was something Todd McLellan referenced before the game, using the two games against the Lightning as examples. “They ate us alive in Tampa in entries, on rushes, finding the fourth man, poor gap and we improved immensely in that area. We worked a lot on it,” he said. Los Angeles out-shot Arizona but didn’t out-chance them in a remarkably even game in which the Kings, as is tradition, owned the zone time and the Coyotes owned the rush chances and produced some whip-fast skill plays around the net that Jack Campbell fought off. Campbell and three-goal man Alex Iafallo starred for an L.A. team that gritted one out against a stingy opponent in a performance that wasn’t quite as suppressive as the Tampa game but again relied on a good start and added third period adjustments that bookended the successful comeback.
Speaking of consistency, hey, Alex Iafallo recorded his first career hat trick and has a high baseline from which his game has recently grown. With nine goals, 15 points and a plus-four rating over an 15-game stretch in which Los Angeles has won only four times and has been outscored 33-18 in five-on-five play, his ascendance is representative of the overall importance and success of his line, which relies on his diverse manifestation of unheralded hustle and puck retrieval independent of how many points he generates. For the second straight game they made their mark up and down the ice and generated more attempts and looks than their opponents despite starts that aligned slightly towards their own end. But Iafallo hasn’t cooled off at all since his nine-game point streak and is a positive player who helps his team in all situations. “A player that I was aware of but didn’t appreciate from the outside looking in,” McLellan said before the game. “When you stand on the bench or you’re on the ice with him day-after-day you get to understand that he’s got a great hockey mind, he thinks the game well, he positions himself well, he’s got a skill set that complements it. There’s very few nights when you come away wishing that you got more from Alex. He’s been a real solid contributor and one of our more consistent players in all situations, and that’s all a teammate can ask and a coach can ask for.”
Interesting juncture for the Coyotes, who exit a disappointing January clinging to a Wild Card berth with the most games played in the NHL. Independent of any narrative or broader picture, last night’s loss was their seventh straight on the second night of a back-to-back set as they fell to 1-5-2 in their last eight overall. It’s an important year for a group that added Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall, spent to the cap and extended John Chayka. There’s a solid blue line and a competitive, up-tempo identity in front of a goaltending corps that when healthy has been among the best in the league. Save percentage is highly impacted by the overall team game, but this rough stretch does correlate largely with the injury to Darcy Kuemper on December 19 at a point when Arizona led the league in 5×5 save percentage. Since his injury, they’ve ranked 17th. That Oliver Ekman-Larsson left last night’s game is an ominous sign for a team that has been hit hard by injury in recent seasons and would like to transfer its many organizational strides into a playoff berth. They’re at the juncture where it’s time to step up and seize a playoff berth.