Wowww! Whooooooo! Ohhhh yeahhhhh!
Tonight’s game against the Winnipeg Jets was a true treat for hockey lovers. It encapsulated what makes hockey so great.
Shifting momentum. Speed and suspense. A short-handed breakaway by Jeff Carter. Puck possession in the face of smothering defense. Sacrifices for the team—Alec Martinez and Nic Dowd saving shots in the crease.
Five Kings hit the goal post or crossbar, including Kyle Clifford who hit both posts in a backhand shot under pressure. It kept the game much too close for comfort for the Kings, who scored first on a top shelf goal by Marian Gaborik, off a pass through the slot by Anze Kopitar.
But over time, the Jets built momentum and eventually gained the upper hand with puck possession and offensive chances. Over and over again, the Jets’ chances were stopped by Peter Budaj, who raised his goaltending to an even higher (All-Star?) level. It was as if Budaj was not content merely being the starter, and instead actively worked to be the difference for the Kings and manufacture the win. (Watch out Jonathan Quick!)
Penalties by Dustin Brown and Kevin Gravel led to power play goals that tilted the game the Jets’ way. In the second period, a pass from behind the net by Mathieu Perreault to Drew Stafford tied the game at one. Budaj expected a one-timer, but Stafford delayed for a split second to get a comfortable hold on the puck, and shot it over Budaj's left shoulder.
And in the third period, inability to clear the puck for what seemed like a full minute led to a point shot by Dustin Byfuglien that deflected off of Kopitar’s skate and put the Jets ahead 2-1 with twelve minutes to go. (It will be interesting, unfortunately, to see if Darryl Sutter scratches Gravel in the next game, as Sutter has proven to have a short leash with Gravel. Derek Forbort, in contrast, has quickly emerged as a defender as valuable as Jake Muzzin and Martinez.)
Over the next several minutes it seemed the game would slip away. Waves of Jets pressure continued, and the Kings had no chance to get unexpected help from Patrik Laine, who was placed on injured reserve with concussion symptoms from a big hit on January 7. (Sorry, couldn’t resist mentioning the unexpected help.)
Sensing the desperation, Kings fans chanted “Go Kings Go!” with urgency in their voices. The Kings stretched to hold onto the puck, even in plays where the offensive sequence looked dead. Finally, a Kopitar breakout came through. Kopitar chipped the puck in the air to himself and turned left behind the net, finding Forbort, who walked the blue line and shot the puck. After Kopitar’s rebound attempt was saved, the puck went to Brown, who buried the rebound to tie the game with five minutes to go. (That’s the Dustin Brown we know and love!)
At the start of overtime, we breathed a sigh of relief as we knew the game belonged to the Kings—it was just a matter of time. Early on, Drew Doughty’s last-second check disrupted a point-blank chance by Byfuglien. Then, Kopitar was stopped cold by Jacob Trouba at the Jets’ blue line. What does Kopitar do?
In classic European fashion, he kicks the puck in a controlled manner to Muzzin who is approaching at full speed. Carter joins Muzzin on the rush. What was a well-defended, innocuous play suddenly morphs into a deadly 2-on-1. And we all know what Carter does best in overtime:
The Kings continue their dominance in the 3-on-3 overtime. More importantly, they maintain their hold on the second Western Conference wild card spot, as the Nashville Predators won again.
The Kings next face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, January 16 in a 1:00 pm game.