In non-breaking news, the Los Angeles Kings didn’t exactly storm out of the gate in their 4-1 loss to the Minnesota Wild Saturday night at the Xcel Energy Center. It’s not that the Kings spotted their opponents two goals, it’s that the Wild, a team that entered the game 25-6-2 in its previous 33, were very good early and took advantage of a sluggish start by the visitors in building up an early lead that ultimately held. It was a lousy start in which Los Angeles had only one line going consistently in the early parts of the game. The Jeff Carter line operated with a heavy advantage in zone time and puck possession, but the other three lines weren’t generating much of an attack and were more likely to be playing in their own zone early on (though as the game progressed the team, possession-wise, eventually found its form, if not the win). Anze Kopitar and his linemates were terrific earlier on the trip and for the better part of the last month but had an off-night on Saturday, and much of the credit in limiting the Kopitar line goes to Nino Niederreiter, Mikko Koivu and Chris Stewart. I’m not sure if Koivu, who was excellent against both Calgary and Los Angeles, receives the amount of respect he deserves for having been such an effective two-way player capable of playing against the top centers in the league for the better part of his 677-game NHL career. He was the first star last night, and deservedly so for a two-goal, three-point, plus-three performance.
Here’s a question worth discussing in the comments section: has Jeff Carter been the Kings’ MVP this season? I’ll let you talk amongst yourselves – surely Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and perhaps even Tyler Toffoli should also be in the discussion – and in the loss to Minnesota, he was Los Angeles’ best player. His entire line was strong, minus a late offensive zone Tyler Toffoli penalty, and last night’s contributions by left wing Dwight King can’t be overlooked. Darryl Sutter reprised a familiar quote from 2012 by noting yesterday that “we’ve still got a lot of guys who haven’t scored a goal since Jesus was a baby,” and one of the players he indirectly referenced was King, who had gone scoreless in his previous 19. Apart from scoring last night, he contributed with perhaps the team’s most effective unheralded play in the first period when he gained the offensive zone on a one-on-three, protected the puck along the boards and maintained possession against three players long enough to complete a line change, and ultimately worked the puck deep below the goal line to facilitate the team’s most extended offensive zone time in the first period. Even when King isn’t producing – and he hadn’t been since scoring in three straight games from February 9-14 – he’s still contributing with little plays such as the one last night in which he’ll help maintain zone time. It’s part of the reason why he’s been an in-the-black possession player throughout his young career.
Minnesota is going to win a round or two in the playoffs. Whether the Wild “upsets” Nashville, St. Louis or Anaheim – a less probable opening round series against Chicago might be a little trickier – is another illustration that excellent teams lose in the first round. This isn’t some late-season epiphany; the Wild were my dark horse team at the start of the season, and even when they maintained their quality possession numbers early and their goaltending began to fade in the Pre-Dubnyk Era, it was fairly clear that the team was still more often than not playing with the structure they’d been known for. With Thomas Vanek having settled into form, and with the added contributions from Chris Stewart, who was very good over the weekend, Minnesota’s status as a dangerous team in the league’s strongest division is enhanced, even if they aren’t as “heavy” as some of the West’s other contenders.