OK, readers, how many of you have seen a movie?
(My opening sentences are the best.)
More specifically, think about a movie where they prove that a character has truly changed his ways. It's never enough to just say it; they have to really drive the point home with a dramatic, sweeping event. Can you believe the former super-villain rescued a family from a burning building? Or that the student who never made an effort studied really hard, made a dramatic speech, aced the test, and got a standing ovation AND an approving nod from the teacher who was always really mean? Wow, I guess a leopard really can change its spots!
Point is, the Los Angeles Kings were already winning close games, succeeding in OT, and getting some key players to step up in this young season. And we've talked about how well the team is playing. But did anyone really think LA was going to break through late against Columbus? We've been bred to expect a painful loss when shots are 38-19 and goals are 1-2! The way in which they pulled it off reinforced every single reason that the Kings have built a nine-point lead in the Pacific. Consider the point driven home.
For starters, three players who have made unexpected marks on the season continued their particular hero arcs.
- Alec Martinez, as the do-it-all defenseman. There were questions about whether everyone's favorite depth defenseman could step into a larger role and validate his big contract, and he's largely done so this year. Granted, his possession numbers lagged behind those of Doughty and Muzzin during an up-and-down November, but he's taking the team's toughest defensive assignments and rarely screwing them up. Tonight, he did that again... while filling up the box score like Steph Curry.
- Nick Shore, as the bottom-six stalwart. Shore went the entire month of November without having a game with his Corsi in the red, so his exemplary shot differentials are common knowledge. Lately, though, he's being trotted out in new and exciting situations, and he's coming through. Last night, with Anze Kopitar gassed, Daryl Sutter trotted out Shore and Dustin Brown, and they linked up beautifully with Martinez for the OT winner.
- Milan Lucic, as the consummate teammate. Lucic certainly brought his brand of hard-nosed, pushy play to the Kings from game 1; speaking of which, it looks like Logan Couture will be back in for the Sharks' next matchup with LA. But when Lucic initially started focusing less on being pugnacious and more on scoring, it was easy to write it off to the fact that he was skating with Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter. He's not going to keep shooting 23%, mind you, but more and more he's proving that he's not just riding coat tails, and with Toffoli struggling in December he's shouldered the load. With the extra attacker out, Martinez finally got the puck to the front after some perseverance, and Lucic could have tried to smash the puck past Curtis McElhinney in a crowd. Instead, he smartly poked it to Carter, who slid the equalizer in. More and more, Lucic looks right at home.
Looch…SEEKING the bump pic.twitter.com/qyPwM1AxF9— LA Kings (@LAKings) December 9, 2015
Alec Martinez had a goal and an assist and led Kings in SOG (7), shot attempts (12) and blocked shots (4).— Rich Hammond (@Rich_Hammond) December 9, 2015
Beyond those players, the usual suspects continued to make their more-expected marks. Drew Doughty topped 29 minutes for the seventh straight game and Anze Kopitar's 31 shifts were a season high. Carter scored against Columbus because he does that, and he now leads LA in every significant offensive stat. Brown and Toffoli didn't score but they continued to generate high-quality chances. And Jonathan Quick, after giving up a pair to Scott Hartnell and Matt Calvert in the second, was rock-solid late, denying multiple potential game-sealing chances from William Karlsson and Ryan Johansen. (The last chance on Karlsson was after a dumb turnover by Jake Muzzin in the final minute. Boy, that would've changed this story.)
Worth noting in all this happy summation? Sergei Bobrovsky started in net for the Blue Jackets and was terrific, stopping everything aside from Christian Ehrhoff's seeing-eye shot off the post late in period number two. It looked like he was stealing this one singlehandedly before he left the game after 55 minutes due to an unspecified injury. It was a tough break for the goalie, who still got the #1 star, and this was nonetheless another standings point that the Jackets can chalk up to the guy who carried a .940 save percentage in November.
That injury, however, sent McElhinney into the game, and after he denied the first few attempts, LA once again grabbed both points when they richly deserved them. Cue the standing ovation. And the approving nod.