There was an interesting story line in the LA Kings’ final performance before an extended break, given Saturday’s blowout loss in Denver and a committed, battle-heavy practice with good focus and pace on Sunday. We’ve all used the term “emotional investment” or some variation so frequently, so forgive us if we approached Saturday’s game with a wisp of curiosity towards where the team’s psyche would be at. (It was asked at a practice whether the team could be “half-checked out” before the hiatus; games heading into breaks can be challenges for good and bad teams alike.) But even though they looked sloppy at times while falling behind, 2-0, their investment in the game was always apparent, and even after they fell behind, deviated little from their original plan. Eventually, mistakes also beset the Blues, who ran into penalty trouble in the second period and had difficulty containing the Kings’ top line, which punctuated a strong afternoon of work by capitalizing on Jake Muzzin stopping Alex Pietrangelo in his tracks at the red line to set up a dangerous and patient Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar two-on-one. There have been a few low-energy practices recently, but Sunday’s up-tempo skate served as the appropriate response to the Colorado game and helped establish a good focus Monday afternoon.
Eligible for restricted free agency, Brendan Leipsic is playing himself towards a contract. Reasonably good players can be had off waivers; Matt Nieto was claimed by Colorado two seasons ago, protected in expansion, and repaid the Avs with 15 goals last season. Los Angeles made two waiver claims last month, one of a former first round draft pick, Nikita Scherbak, who has speed and playmaking ability but lacked the definition to put his tools to use, and the other, Leipsic, who also owns a decent degree of skill but with some hardened detail and a firmer constitution to demonstrate it. He’s playing up a line or two and ultimately has the skating ability and willingness to get to hard spots to serve as a plenty viable third or fourth line player beyond this season, so it’s good to see him rank fifth in individual points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play and lead the team in assists per 60. His bang-bang play to Tyler Toffoli capped a sloppy sequence in which Jordan Binnington did not stop the puck behind his net, Leipsic’s pass hopped over Jeff Carter’s stick, and Ivan Barbashev’s outlet deflected off Toffoli’s skate into Leipsic’s oncoming path.
The Kings showed good resolve in this game, coming from behind by two goals early and shaking off a game-tying Ryan O’Reilly goal midway through the third period. They’ll need that determination to get the appropriate amount of work in over this break, because their first game after 11 full days off will be against a stingy New York Islanders team coming off a home game against the league-leading Lightning the night prior. It’s easy to imagine strange things afoot at Nassau Coliseum that night, given the tendencies for teams to suffer an extra breakdown or two out of breaks, a notion perhaps enhanced by a particularly long absence for a team particularly low in the standings. It will be interesting to see which players play their best hockey coming out of this hiatus.
Lead photo via Harry How/Getty Images