Carrying their momentum over from the third period the night before, the LA Kings crafted a very good first period that afforded them a firm handle on a game they won running away with four goals in the third. Structurally, this first period was among the more airtight periods under Willie Desjardins, one in which the club demonstrated cohesion in the five-man movements up and down the ice and particularly on the forecheck. New Jersey was hemmed back through much of the first, influenced into lobs, clears and irregular zone exits as Los Angeles was quick to pucks and committed to winning battles. The Kings lacked that energy in the second period and became reliant on Jack Campbell and a couple goalposts – the Devils were going to make that concerted push – but ended the period with several strong shifts in a row and carried a 39-second power play into the third. New Jersey won the faceoff and cleared the puck immediately, and from there Los Angeles’ purpose in setting up their power play represented an excellent will and focus and was capped off by Tyler Toffoli’s blistering one-timer that snuck under the crossbar off an Anze Kopitar feed. By the time Ilya Kovalchuk punctuated the win with a late goal, the boos had already died into a dreary murmur.
With three multi-point efforts in his last four games, Toffoli is heating up some 53 games into the season. There’s some market correction in play here; his underlying metrics say that he’s been long overdue. But this season has still been such a conundrum for him. Puck management mistakes seem to have uncharacteristically crept into his game, and it seems that for every batch of chances he’s generating – he impressively leads the team with 9.33 individual scoring chances per 60 minutes, per Natural Stat Trick – there are a few too many giveaways, such as his first period errant pass in the neutral zone that led to a chance going in the other direction. But his season-long underlying numbers are excellent and depict a player who has been unlucky for much of the season and has seen his production depressed by an uncharacteristically low shooting percentage and the low tide of offense around him. The Kings should absolutely not trade Toffoli at the point of his lowest value (I’m not expecting them to, and in fact, it’s now appearing as though more of the team’s heavier roster changeover may take place over the summer, barring a deal too good to pass up), nor should they wiggle an itchy trigger finger to do so at any point. This is a team starved for offense, and his very good possession and shot and chance-generating numbers indicate there’s a good chance he’ll rebound and provide better value for his contract in 2019-20.
So, this is what an offense looks like: Los Angeles has scored four goals in three of their last four games and won them all. They scored two in the other game, and that wasn’t exactly a criminal output against the league’s stingiest team (and yes, it is still strange that we’re saying that about the 2018-19 Islanders). Their team game has improved, with only a couple unsatisfying periods mixed in recently against the Rangers and Blues. It’s too bad that it took the team until mid-winter to play some of its best hockey. The Kings are 11-7-1 since going o-fer on their Great Lakes trip, a stretch that includes wins at Vegas, Dallas, San Jose and Colorado and at home against Vegas, Winnipeg and Pittsburgh. There have been more encouraging individual performances among players who will be on this team next season, and that’s good, but unless the group rattles off seven or eight wins in a row, they’re without any legitimate playoff hope. The second wild card, the Vancouver Canucks (!) – wait, let me add another (!) – are on an 82-point pace, having won 24 of 54 games. (The 2014-15 Kings, who had 95 points and learned they’d miss the playoffs in Game 81, are punching a hole in their hat.) But pay little attention to the point pace. There are still six teams between the Kings and the second wild card, and there are teams among that group that will eventually seize an opportunity and go on a run that will predictably prevent an 82-point team from getting in. Arizona will be getting players healthy. Chicago made several productive trades and is on a nice little run. St. Louis, also on a run, has games in hand. Anaheim, [tugs collar]. Let’s skip them. There is still belief among the players that they can wedge their way back into the mix, and the coaching staff will best prepare them, as always, to come away with two points on any given night. But the best opportunity to make the most of much-needed roster evolution and add needed skill is to end up with as high of a pick as possible, and by beating the Rangers and Devils, they didn’t do themselves any long-term favors in that regard.
–Lead photo via Bruce Bennett/Getty Images