For the first 20 minutes of Thursday’s 5-2 win, there wasn’t much data to dispel the (mostly anecdotal) observation that the Kings traditionally fare poorly against back-up goaltenders, nor the (much more valid) observation that the team has struggled at home and in first periods. It took the Kings 20 minutes to start skating, but there are two teams on the ice, and the Blue Jackets, in their first game of an important road trip, following consecutive wins over Chicago and Washington, and with the importance of their remaining 19 games coming clearly into focus, had some expected and heavy jump right off the hop. This resulted in an early goal in which they outworked the Kings early and forced the team into poor puck management in several situations, followed by a mid-period goal in which Seth Jones was using FasTrak while the Kings countered from the exit lane of the 110 freeway during mid-week rush hour.
Columbus’ lead was erased over a 5:11 second period span that kickstarted Los Angeles’ romp. The period started inauspiciously with Pierre-Luc Dubois using some impressive speed to gain a step on Alex Iafallo and draw a penalty while forcing Jonathan Quick into a difficult two-on-one save that emerged as a major turning point in the win. Los Angeles allowed hardly a sniff at the net during the ensuing power play, and 22 seconds after its conclusion, Christian Folin started the wheels in motion for the first of three goals scored as the result of responsible checking and quick counters to set up offense. All were impressive in their own right, but the play that seemed to be most representative of the win was Anze Kopitar snatching the puck from Nick Foligno on a botched exchange and Folin putting the puck towards the net just as Iafallo buzzed through the low slot. It wasn’t off a rush, but the counter still seemed to be quasi-representative of the way the Vegas Golden Knights have been able to generate much of their offense this year: become hellbent on getting the puck back, get it to a dangerous area, raise your sticks in the air. The Kings were playing fast, generating the lion’s share of the scoring opportunities, and were clearly the better team in all game situations after confidently killing off the early second period power play.
There are certain observations that are essentially saying “you need air to breathe,” but the Kings need to improve out of the gate after falling to a league-worst -22 goal differential in first periods. (A good time to nip this in the bud will come tomorrow against Chicago, the first of three consecutive Saturday matinee home starts.) They’re quite good at battling from behind, having won their league-leading 18th best game when yielding the first goal. That’s on the backs of an impressive and league-best +36 third period goal differential that on Thursday helped push the Kings to a lukewarm but improving 16-11-3 at Staples Center this year. Though Anaheim benefits the most among playoff-hopeful Pacific Division teams in terms of facing teams coming off short rest – the Ducks have six remaining games against teams on the second night of back-to-back sets – keep in mind Los Angeles will face minimally-rested teams (Arizona, Colorado, Minnesota and Dallas) in four of last five games of the season. This is perhaps a moot point, because many of the “tired” teams the Ducks will face are simply making the drive down The 5, and not crossing borders or changing time zones, and tonight, they’ll face Columbus’ top starter instead of a back-up. But it’s still an interesting wrinkle that will factor into jockeying for playoff life when only six points separate the second place team in the division from the 11th place team in the conference.
-Lead photo via Juan Ocampo/NHLI