The Los Angeles Kings had a chance for a decent road trip or a relatively poor one, depending on what they could squeeze out of this game. It was no easy task given that they were on the second half of a back-to-back and had to cross the Canadian border overnight (meaning they had go through customs, adding probably an extra hour to their trip after leaving Chicago).
After a sluggish first period, early indications would seem to indicate that this game was going end up being like so many others in which the Kings surrendered the first goal. But those indications were WRONG for once. What a lovely change. Broadcasters and pundits alike frequently say that teams need their goalie to keep them in a period until the tired team can find their legs and that’s exactly what Darcy Kuemper did for the Kings.
Make no mistake, the Winnipeg Jets are an excellent team who have spent quite a bit of time atop the Western Conference standings (remember what that was like way back in November? Ah, memories). Kuemper allowing only one goal on 16 shots, coming on a 5v3 disadvantage is outstanding and just what the road team needed in order to make in-game adjustments (a key from Jim Fox) and eventually win the game.
The second period was actually refreshingly good for the Kings. No, really! They scored two goals and held the Jets to just one in that period while nearly matching them in shot total. And best of all, the Kings managed eight scoring chances and the Jets just three. It was definitely one of their better second periods this year. Alec Martinez tied the game on the power play and Dion Phaneuf gave his new team a brief lead also on the power play before Dustin Byfuglien tied the game at two for Winnipeg.
The Jets had an extended shift in the offensive zone for so long, it felt like they were on the power play. Anze Kopitar stepped into the slot in an attempt to block the shot but ended up deflecting the puck into the back of the net. It was actually some slight bad luck as it was a perfect arc that went up and over Kuemper’s head and fell into the back of the net. Sometimes good things happen when you work hard for it.
Fortunately for both teams, the buzzer sounded a minute later, ending the second period and setting up a very interesting final frame. The last 20 minutes at times looked and felt like a track meet but the Kings impressively held their own against the Jets. Torrey Mitchell took advantage of a scramble in front of Connor Hellebuyck to give the Kings another lead. However, shortly before that, Kuemper dazzled with three incredible saves in a row. He made two pad saves and then leaned across to be in the correct position to gobble up a shot from Blake Wheeler.
All of this set up Mitchell on the second shift following those game-saving stops. Initially, the Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Alex Iafallo line did some fantastic forechecking in the offensive zone but weren’t quite able to score. The Jets cleared the puck and both teams changed lines. Martinez started the rush from behind his own net and then dumped it in behind Hellebuyck. Tanner Pearson and Adrian Kempe went to work on the forecheck, never allowing that black disc of vulcanized rubber to completely cross the blue line. Mitchell, with a feather light touch, passed the puck to a waiting Jake Muzzin whose wrist shot hit traffic in front. Kempe couldn’t corral the rebound and Hellebuyck had no idea where anything was. Mitchell, showing some veteran patience, calmly skated around the hullabaloo in front of the net and scored on the unsuspecting Jets netminder.
Nearly 10 (game) minutes later, Brown scored his 17th goal of the season (also, Kopitar earned his 800th career point in his 900th career game). It was just an incredible heads up play by the Kings captain to draw attention to himself after the power play ended and put the puck in a safe spot. Precious cupcake Tyler Toffoli hasn’t scored in a while. He’s mired in an ugly slump but he still sent a beautiful pass over to the former captain, who had backed up just enough to give himself enough room to receive the puck and then score.
Earlier in the game, Toffoli had a breakaway chance snuffed out by the Winnipeg goalie, but it wasn’t for lack of effort.
It’s basically a literal representation of how his scoring attempts are going right now. He’s still trying, though. According to Natural Stat Trick, everyone’s favorite mini pastry racked up five individual chances for, two of which were scoring chances and one of which was high danger. By comparison, Brown had eight chances, one scoring chance and one high danger (likely the latter two are from his goal).
All in all, it was a solid road win for the Kings. Kuemper was outstanding in every way. He was never rattled and always looked under control. The epitome of a true professional, he certainly looked ready for this game and made several game-changing saves. The next 11 days are going to be just as critical as this road trip. They’ll have four games, including a home-and-home back-to-back set with the Vegas Golden Knights, wrapping up the first week of March with home games against the Columbus Blue Jackets and Chicago Blackhawks. They’ll have a four day break after that followed by an intense three weeks at the end of the month with three sets of back-to-backs.
Fun fact: Outside of the Golden Knights, they won’t see an inter-division opponent until March 12, when the Vancouver Canucks come to visit. This is going to be an interesting next few weeks. With so much rest and so many home games coming up, these are critical points to pick up. They’re temporarily back in third place, but we all know that can change on any given night.