Two comments made by the Kings broadcast team during last night’s game with the Florida Panthers resonate with me. Shortly after the opening face-off, play-by-play man Alex Faust summed up where the Kings stood as we head into the final quarter of the season. Faust commented that for many players on the team, “training camp” for next season had unofficially begun. Late in the third period, color commentator Jim Fox observed that there is a big difference between having to play yourself onto a team during training camp versus having to play yourself off a team.
Both statements make the same point. For all intents and purposes this season is over. Hockey-Reference.com reports that the Kings have a zero percent probability of making the playoffs while still giving both the Ducks and Sharks a 0.4 percent chance of getting in. How depressing is that? So depressing that when I’m stopped around town by fans and asked what I think about the Kings, I can no longer use my “go to line” from the classic Jim Carrey film “Dumb and Dumber.”
Many players on the Kings roster should heed note that if they think these last 21 games are just an exercise in playing out the string hoping not to get hurt, their tenure in Los Angeles will be short. This last part of the season has morphed into an extended tryout camp during which the manner one plays on the ice, as well as the level of professionalism shown off the ice and in the locker room will be scrutinized by management as Todd McLellan and the hockey operations staff develop a roster plan for next season. How those players perform over these last 21 games, 15 of which are at home, will go a long way in determining who will start next season in Los Angeles, who will start in Ontario, and who will be sent packing, perhaps even before training camp.
Last night’s victory over the Panthers, to whom every point is important in their fight for the last wild-card sport in the East, was powered by players who have little tenure with the Kings. Gabe Vilardi, the 11th pick overall in the 2017 draft, scored 10 seconds into his first NHL shift, setting a record for fastest first goal in NHL history, breaking the mark of 15 seconds set by Gus Bodnar of the Maple Leafs in 1943. Vilardi took a short feed from Kurtis MacDermid just inside the blue line, putting it past Panther goalie Sergei Bobrovsky at 1:36 of the first period,
Vilardi also assisted on a goal late in the second period by 26-year old Martin Frk who was playing in only his eighth game with the Kings, having shuttled back and forth between the AHL and the big club. Vilardi created Frk’s goal by making two excellent plays. First with some nice corner work getting the puck back to the point, and then after the puck made its way back around the net, feeding Frk in front with a pinpoint pass. (Fun fact: four of Frk’s five goals have come in Kings victories.)
Also scoring tonight was recently acquired 24-year old Trevor Moore, who tied the game at three midway through the second period by deflecting a Drew Doughty blast from the point. Moore has scored two goals in six games with the Kings, since being acquired from Toronto in the Kyle Clifford / Jack Campbell trade. This goal however must have been a particular thrill for the Thousand Oaks native as it was his first goal at Staples Center wearing a Kings uniform.
Finally, 26-year old University of Maine alum Ben Hutton scored the game winner midway through the third period, putting the Kings ahead 5-4. Hutton, a 6’2” 206 pound defenseman who was signed by the Kings as a free agent in September, has not only played in 57 of the team’s 61 games, but has impressively reduced his plus/minus to zero, down from minus 23 last season in 59 games with Vancouver.
Although four of the five Kings goals tonight were scored by players who have spent less than one full season with the team (and three of the four having played less than eight games with the club) this recap is just not an homage to youth and rebuilding. Just as Rocky Balboa trained Apollo Creed’s son, these young Kings need to be trained by veterans, and there could not be two better ones to learn from in the NHL than Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty, both of whom factored on tonight’s score sheet. Kopitar led Kings’ forwards in ice time. playing 21:58 and gathering two assists, his fourth consecutive multi-assist game, the longest such streak by a King since The Great One recorded four straight multi-assist games in 1996. Doughty as usual led the team with 23:15 of ice time and had both a goal and assist.
Lastly, speaking of grizzled veterans, it’s nice to see the boys step up and win one for Jonathan Quick on a night when the franchise legend wasn’t at his best between the pipes. As I noted in my preview of Tuesday’s Winnipeg game Quick had posted a goals against-average of 1.66 and a save percentage of .944 in his 12 previous wins, while in his 22 regulation losses he has a 3.68 goals against average and a .874 save percentage. Against Florida he allowed four goals on 29 shots, but still came away with the “W”.
Next up is a back-to-back, beginning with a rematch with the Avalanche Saturday night at Staples Center. Although Connor McDavid is not expected to play when the Oilers come into town Sunday night, NHL leading scorer Leon Draisaitl will surely be exciting to watch.
It’s been an unusual two weeks for Kings fans, having to say goodbye to old friends Toffoli, Martinez, Clifford, and Campbell. I recognize there are three more days to go before the trade deadline and who knows if Luc and Rob have anything more in store, but for a short while lets all bask in the glory of Gabe Vilardi’s record setting debut, and let us all say together GO KINGS GO!