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Recap, Kings @ Hurricanes: Budaj Plays Like an All-Star, Offense Comes Through Late

LA hands Carolina their first shutout of the season to put themselves in a good spot at the break.

NHL: Los Angeles Kings at Carolina Hurricanes James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

The standings will tell you that the Kings aren’t in playoff position, but games in hand are a blessing, aren’t they? 49 games into the 2016-17 season, the Kings’ point pace is good for fourth in the Pacific and eighth in the West, and that’s all they really need. The final game before the All-Star Break was a tight defensive struggle which was reminiscent of the season at large, and if it really is reflective, hopefully the Kings’ late breakthrough against the Hurricanes foreshadows some offensive heroics down the stretch.

[Box Score]

I promise we’ll talk about the offense, which provided perhaps the most satisfying single minute of the season so far. It wouldn’t have mattered without Peter Budaj, though. There’s been a lot of talk about how Budaj hasn’t had to steal many games this year thanks to LA’s ability to limit shots, which isn’t wrong, but he also hasn’t lost the Kings many games. And now we’re living in a world where Budaj has been arguably the Pacific Division’s best goaltender this season.

A lot of things had to fall into place for Budaj to get this opportunity; Quick had to get hurt, Budaj had to clear waivers, and Zatkoff had to get injured (and then struggle). That doesn’t mean Budaj didn’t earn it, though; he got a one-year deal in October of 2015 after 15 winless games in the AHL and literally had everything to prove, and since then he’s been remarkable for Ontario and steady for Los Angeles. I’m not sure there’s been a better redemption story in hockey this season.

Budaj’s goaltending carried the Kings through a difficult second period, where two penalties and an inability to use the long change effectively resulted in considerable defensive zone time. The defensemen should get some credit, though. Make no mistake, the chances Carolina did get were good ones, but LA’s defense also made some plays. Brayden McNabb and Kevin Gravel (both of whom have had to work their way back into Darryl Sutter’s good graces) were noticeably strong in their own end, and Derek Forbort played five minutes shorthanded and provided four of LA’s 18 shot blocks.

As so often happens, though, Drew Doughty will take home many of the plaudits. And that’s because, in addition to 27 minutes played and some key chances interrupted, he got the primary assist when LA’s offense finally broke through. Jeff Carter, Anze Kopitar, Marian Gaborik, and Jordan Nolan all had great looks on Cam Ward and either missed the net or got stopped, but Kopitar and Gaborik made up for their misses with five minutes to go. Kopitar was at the end of a long-ish shift, but even tired Kopitar is tough to get off the puck, and he dawdled in the neutral zone before dropping a pass behind his back to Doughty. One controlled zone entry and one perfect pass to the middle left Gaborik alone with Ward, and this time, he was not to be denied.

And while we’re at it, how about the Kings’ second-best redemption story, Devin Setoguchi? A quiet month and some recent strong play from Jordan Nolan and Andy Andreoff had me wondering if there would be a spot for Devin down the stretch, and while it’s not a given, consecutive games with an assist will help. He earned this one, too, creating space for himself and wiring a shot which Cam Ward could only parry to the net front. Crashing in? Trevor Lewis, to make it a 2-0 game on the very next shift after Gaborik’s goal.

Kyle Clifford’s empty-netter (the Kings’ fourth ENG of the year) made it 3-0, secured the win, and suddenly made me wish the All-Star Game wasn’t interrupting this team after I was praying for a break earlier this week. On the bright side, the game is in LA, did you hear? Stay with us all weekend for updates