There were two big questions about the Kings coming into tonight. First: how would they fare without Drew Doughty in the lineup for the first time (in the regular season) since 2014. And second: how would they look after more than a week off, thanks to the All-Star break as well as their bye week.
The answer to both is: “Well, it depends.”
The Kings did manage to come out with a hot start, dominating the first period and going up 2-0 very early in the second. But from there, the Lightning controlled the game, taking advantage of the Kings’ mistakes the rest of the way en route to a 4-2 win.
Since Chirstmas, the Kings have had the second-best power play in the league, and they continued their success on the man advantage tonight, with Tyler Toffoli opening scoring after a somewhat dubious slashing call on Kevin Shattenkirk.
The Kings remained strong for the most part through the first period, despite a late push from the Lightning, and despite a late penalty kill for the Kings.
Of course, the question going into the second period was whether or not the Kings could maintain that hot start. The answer was yes, with Alex Iafallo scoring less than two minutes in. His shot from the top of the circle didn’t look particularly dangerous, but the puck had enough wobble on it to evade Vasilevskiy, putting the Kings up 2-0.
Of course, this is the Kings, and the Lightning, so it was only a matter of time for the visitors to get on the board. Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson exchanged passes as they came in alone against Matt Roy, with Ben Hutton getting left behind earlier on the play; Johnson was the eventual goal-scorer.
Over halfway into the period, Kurtis MacDermid sat for slashing, sending the Kings back to the penalty kill. On what looked like an exhausting kill, with the Kings hemmed in their own zone the entire time, the penalty killers put on an epic performance. In a breathless two minute sequence, there were huge blocks from Alex Iafallo, Alec Martinez, Joakim Ryan, not to mention an intense performance by Jonathan Quick.
Of course, as soon as the Kings were back to full strength, this happened:
Tie game. Whoops.
The Lightning made it 3-2 early in the third period off of a faceoff play. Former Kings prospect Erik Cernak’s shot went in off the top bar and came back out so quickly that it was hard to realize at first that a goal had been scored.
The Lightning later thought they scored to make it 4-2, with Steven Stamkos racing into the zone, but the play was successfully challenged as an offsides play.
The Kings had their chances, but Vasilevskiy and the Lightning defense stood tall, turning pucks away through the rest of the game. The Lightning scored an empty net goal with less than a second left to cap things off for the evening.
After the game, Anze Kopitar acknowledged the hard work of the penalty killers and disappointment that it ended up being all for naught. “Guys are sacrificing their bodies with blocks,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that once you get to even strength, then you get scored on.”
The mood was positive and disappointed at the same time, with both Kopitar and Todd McLellan glad to see the team come out strong after such a long break. “Can’t complain a lot about the effort,” McLellan said. “Happy with the way we started the game. Coming out of the break, I was really concerned whether we’d be able to get our engine going, especially against that team.”
Capitalizing on mistakes was a big theme from McLellan. “Good teams make you pay for mistakes. We made some tonight and they made us pay. You got the pinch on the first goal, an emotional penalty that we probably shouldn’t have been involved in.”
Ultimately, McLellan acknowledged, the issue tonight wasn’t effort, it was skill, and that’s something that’s going to be harder — and slower — for the Kings to fix. “I don’t think their game plan was any better than we were. They just have the skill right now to make you pay,” he said. “We got some work to do, roster-wise, talent-wise, and team-wise.”
The Kings are back in action tomorrow as they head to take on the Arizona Coyotes.
Outside Staples Center, the plaza at LA Live, as well as all of the metal barricades outside of the arena, have turned into a memorial to Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and the seven others who died earlier this week.
Cheers of “Kobe” and “MVP” rung out in an otherwise eerily still plaza, certainly the most quiet I’ve ever heard that area be. Walking through the plaza — the sidewalks of which, people have begun writing their tributes to Kobe and others on — was a somber start to the evening.
The start of the game was delayed about 15-20 minutes more than usual in hopes of allowing the video tribute to be shown during the nationally televised game. Bob Miller joined to offer brief remarks before and after the Kings’ video tribute. A 24-second moment of silence was held, honoring all lives lost.
After the game, Anze Kopitar shared his perspective on the ceremony: “It certainly wasn’t easy. I mean, we all knew it was coming. Even though you know it’s coming, you still get choked up.”
Like many people, athletes and layperson alike, Kopitar cited Bryant’s competitive nature as something that stood out the most about him. “I think my favorite thing about him is he wanted to win no matter what, whether that’s playing hard or finesse or anything,” Kopitar said. “It wasn’t very many nights where he took the night off. He was probably the ultimate competitor and closer.”