The LA Kings checking and neutral zone play was again on point in yet another stifling, airtight performance against the Colorado Avalanche that continued to mesh their systematic advances with strong goaltending and opportunistic scoring. While Jonathan Quick and Cal Petersen had carried the team on their backs for much of this run (and Quick was terrific for the third time in the compacted series), these last two performances have represented steps forward in the overall team game and the purpose with which the players implement it. The Avalanche have been beset by injuries but “fill holes with guys that show up to win games,” as Todd McLellan said Monday, and have constructed a thoroughly strong team game in which “everybody plays together for the group rather than the individual.” Meaningful words from an opposing coach about a team that swept their previous three back-to-back sets and entered Staples Center as one of the few teams statistically hotter than the Los Angeles. But they didn’t have their legs going early (or several star players), and though they offered a firm push through much of the third, weren’t able to close the gap, which through two periods read 27-12 in shots on goal and 2-0 on the scoreboard. Dos a cero es dos a cero, and by the end of the night, the 3-1 scoreline remained accurate.
I noted this on Twitter, and it’s worth expanding on. I asked Todd about the even allotment of minutes in a game in which there were varied contributions and a ton of five-on-five time. “We just rolled guys out and counted on Kopi’s line to check what was left of their top players much as we could, and the other lines did a pretty admirable job,” he said. Again, this isn’t something you’re unaware of, but this isn’t simply another example of Anze Kopitar selflessness. It’s a leadership trait. 69 games into a season in which they ascended from 30th to 29th place with the win, McLellan game-planned for a future Hall of Famer to saw off and check Colorado’s top players, freeing up opportunity for scorers who combined don’t have a quarter of his 950 career points. When a team gets goals from 22, 20 and 26-year-olds and controls the run of play as its veteran captain absorbs the forward group’s heaviest and most difficult minutes and, most importantly, is rewarded with a win, that’s a constructive example being set. We’re approaching the time that three years ago, Kopitar spoke with Helene Elliott in Vancouver about how he was “still learning” the responsibilities of the captaincy, calling it “a new challenge” that he was “getting the handle of.” This current chapter in which the Kings shed leadership figures in Kyle Clifford, Alec Martinez, Tyler Toffoli and Jack Campbell yet have won six straight since the trade deadline to amplify a 9-2-1 stretch has to be weighed as a positive referendum on the personal growth Kopitar has experienced wearing the C.
As for the other three lines, they came to work. Michael Amadio’s line dominated Nathan MacKinnon’s over several first period shifts; Wagner’s goal was his second Grade-A look in the game’s first 15 minutes. Among those tasked to show where they fit in for next year, both could use Monday’s game as a prime template. And there’s also a lot that needs to be said about Alex Iafallo, a player who continues to add layering well into his 20’s and who spoke that morning of wanting to be “the middle of the pyramid” of the leadership base between the established veterans and those trying to find their way in the league. “Learning off them,” he said of Kopitar and Dustin Brown, “it rubs off on you.” Iafallo, who scored his 17th goal and set 20 goals as his target before the season, wants to be a role model to the younger players and fit in, as it sounds, as part of that important secondary leadership core beyond the you-know-whos. Given his insurance goal that came against the run of play when he plucked a Ben Hutton up-ice rim-around from the skates of NHL plus-minus leader Ryan Graves, McLellan’s quote on Iafallo’s puck pursuit Monday morning sounded prescient. “He knows where to be and how to get there so he can do those things. There are others that have those talents but just don’t quite arrive on time or they don’t anticipate where the play is going. He gets it, he arrives, tries to get the job done in that spot and then moves on to his next job. It’s really a simple formula for him. I don’t see it being anything outside of simplicity, and he gets the job done.”