Big, big wins, Insiders. Between Jeff Carter’s third period goal Monday and Anze Kopitar’s beautiful finish Tuesday, all of 48 minutes of game time served to highlight an evolved trajectory of a team that was close to finishing up a 0-3-0 home stand but instead swept a pair of games against the Western Conference’s top team and banked on a big performance from Jack Campbell in his first career NHL win. Tuesday’s game turned on a dime seven minutes into the second period. Vegas had been forechecking heavily and disrupting Los Angeles’ ability to get out of its zone in any sort of a rhythm early in the period to a nine-to-one shot discrepancy. And then neither Reilly Smith nor Deryk Engelland could handle a cross-ice feed, allowing Tyler Toffoli to scoop up the detritus of the play and skate in alone on Maxime Lagace before beating him short-side to completely change the complexion of the period. The remainder of the middle frame was played on even footing and included Kopitar’s late-period goal, and then the Kings were the better team over the final 20 minutes of the game, when their vintage defensive zone coverage allowed few sniffs at the net in a model lock-down performance.
Campbell’s tremendous outing did seem to have some surface-level parallel in Martin Jones’ first career appearance, when he stopped 26 of 28 shots through regulation and all nine shootout attempts in a 3-2 win at Anaheim on December 3, 2013. But that game featured an astounding 103 shot attempts directed towards Jonas Hiller, whereas on Tuesday, Campbell was the busier goalie and also faced the additional pressure of making his first Los Angeles start on the road against the conference’s top team during the thick of a late-season playoff race, rather in the late fall. “For me, it was a little bit more than just another game,” Campbell said afterwards. “Of course I wanted to prove to everybody, but most importantly my teammates, that they can count on me. So, it was kind of weird because this was probably the biggest game I’ve played in, and I felt the most comfortable just because of the surroundings and the locker room.” He also credited Jonathan Quick for supplying some additional information on Vegas’ shooters and their tendencies on the puck. It was a special day for Campbell, and for Goaltender Development Dusty Imoo, who had built a special bond with the eminently positive goaltender whose performance went a ways towards building the confidence of those around him during a time of the year he’ll be counted on for important, late-season starts. Roughly six weeks ago, I was hearing that the team was confident that Campbell would be able to handle the duties as Quick’s full-time back-up in 2018-19, with blue chip goaltending prospect Cal Petersen factoring in prominently one year afterwards. Rebuilding the goaltending pipeline was among the earliest thrusts of Rob Blake’s tenure of general manager, and by signing Campbell to a two-year extension, by convincing Petersen to sign with Los Angeles as a free agent, and by drafting and signing players such as Matthew Villalta and Cole Kehler, the team won’t have to use resources or precious cap space to bid against other teams for full-time back-ups. This depth, and Darcy Kuemper’s excellence through the first 60 games, also allowed the team to make a shrewd trade to bring in a two-way forward in Tobias Rieder who adds good speed to the wing, an area the team was looking to accentuate in advance of the trade deadline.
Anze Kopitar was rightfully chosen as the second star of the game – nobody was topping Campbell’s 41/42 performance for the top honors – and turned a typically effective 22:46 of ice time in which he scored one of his most attractive goals of the season, added a pinpoint power play assist to ice the game, and contributed to the bend-but-don’t-break checking performance that improved as the game progressed. It matters little that Kopitar was not on the ice for any L.A. shot attempts when Cody Eakin was matched against him. The most representative play of the evening was when Eakin completed a full revolution around the perimeter of the offensive zone in the second period, unable to forge any path to the net or issue a pass towards a more threatening area with Kopitar draped all over him. Over the final 27 minutes, Kopitar and the Kings were dialed in to channeling the puck away from dangerous areas and benefiting from strong defensive zone coverage that relied heavily on positioning and stick usage – and Derek Forbort’s eight blocked shots – in limiting the conference’s top scoring team to just one goal. When the dust settled, they found themselves in third place in the division with an important five home games on the horizon.
-Lead photo via Jeff Bottari/NHLI