A homecoming game, on both sides. That’s what Kings-Oilers figured to be Thursday night in LA. Coming back to town was Ryan Smyth, fan favorite and two-year LA native who moved back to Edmonton last summer, it was said, due to family reasons. Some among the fan base are skeptical about that, and they let it be known by booing the veteran loudly.
Seeing old mates was Jarret Stoll, who played the early part of his career in Alberta. Also figuring in the mix—Taylor Hall, who heard his name called as the first overall pick in 2010 in this very building. And of course, Eric Belanger was with the Kings from 2001-06.
Add to that Ethan Moreau, with the Oilers a decade before a year with Columbus and then to LA, and Matt Greene, three seasons in Edmonton, and you have the recipe for a lot of nostalgia.
Even more to be noted: this night would be the ironic debut of Colten Teubert. Ironic? Because the Kings drafted him with their first pick in 2008, 13th overall. He was the team’s next great hope, and the year after he was drafted, he got 37 points in the WHL with the Regina Pats. That was in 60 games. He also played eight games with the Ontario (CA) Reign of the ECHL that year. The next, he got 40 points in 60 games, and 3 in ten with the Reign. That season also saw him get 115 PIMs in the notoriously rough Western Junior league.
The Kings promoted him to their AHL Manchester team the next year, but then the Oilers came calling with a trade offer. Dustin Penner for Teubert plus draft picks. The Kings bit. Since then, Penner’s done nothing, and now Teubert is in the NHL.
Other intrigue centered around the LA debut of rookie Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, now firmly in the league after having survived the ten-game cutoff (he’s been in all of the Oilers’ twelve so far, coming into the night with 11 points in 11 games). He wasn’t huge in the game, though he finished with 18 minutes played and four blocked shots. That trailed only Ladislav Smid on the Oilers, and the five that he blocked were off the arm, the shoulder, the same arm again, and one other.
After the game, IH approached him to talk about his first California experience. “Nope, never been to Cali,” he started out, “It was cool stepping off the plane and the heat wave kind of hit you. It was 28 [obviously speaking Celsius] when we got here yesterday, so it’s a huge climate change. The palm trees everywhere are a little bit different than Edmonton. It’s my first time being here, but it’s a really nice city from what I saw.”
Speaking of the connections between the two teams, he said, “I think most of the young guys are aware of it, but we don’t want to think about it too much. We just want to approach it as another game. It’s motivation, but we just go in and try to play the game and get a ‘W’ out of it.”
About his personal adjustment to the NHL, he said, “I’m starting to feel a lot better. I think the exhibition games got me ready, but the regular season is a whole different thing, so after the few first games, I started to feel a little more comfortable… more adjusted to the game.”
I asked him whether he’d had any surprises, and he said, “I think my biggest thing I need to keep working on is my faceoffs. I’ve been struggling with them, but that’s something I need to keep working on and improve them as best I can.” He won three and lost five on the night.
Just to set the record straight, Nugent-Hopkins is listed at 175lb., and NHL players are sometimes credited for more size than they possess. In his case, it looks like 175 is on the under-side. Maybe he’s put on muscle over the summer, but he’s bulkier than most people give him credit for being.
He also commented that Ryan Smyth had helped him adjust to the NHL, having him over for dinner a couple of times. Wouldn’t you know it, Smyth scored the first goal of the game. Actually, Alec Martinez of the Kings did, or at least it went behind Jonathan Quick off of his stick, but it was Smyth’s clearing pass out from behind the net that set it up. Hence, he got credit.
Until that moment (and nobody could blame him for the goal), Quick had been stellar. He had stopped 11 shots while watching his team get seven. The Oilers’ best chance came in the first period, when Drew Doughty was caught up ice in the Edmonton zone. Smyth and Ryan Jones came down two-on-one, and the puck went left to right for the shot. Quick burst across the net in the full splits and got it with his left leg. Spectacular.
Too bad the Kings’ offense wasn’t the same. They lamely played through two periods of hockey with just 10 shots, absolutely none dangerous. And, to be accurate, it should have been nine. What was counted as the tenth was a long wrister from the point that was at least two feet wide. Maybe that’s what you get when the off-ice officials are guys who have never played the game.
Too bad for LA about the shots, because it might have been nice to see them test the number one goalie in the league. Nikolai Khabibulin came into the night with a lights-out save percentage of .960 (Quick’s was a none too shabby .947). Nothing happened to disturb those numbers, only help them, as he ended up shutting out the Kings.
Having not seen any of their games, one might assume that the goalie’s great numbers were because of his play. Perhaps this has been the reason. But at least part of the credit has to go to the team’s defense. At least against the LA team, they were stingy with the puck, not just not allowing shots, but not allowing access to the crease, the slot, and hardly to the zone. Their season numbers coming into the night show them giving up relatively few shots. Nugent-Hopkins said that there have been nights when the goalies have stood on their heads in the young season, but that other times, the team has been forceful out front.
Edmonton scored again before the second period ended when Quick was interfered with (he thought, as he protested to the referee after the goal) while Ben Eager took a shot which hit a leg and Lennart Petrell put the puck in on his backhand. An Oiler whose name sounds like “petrol”? He’s a rookie at 27, from the Finnish league, who came over this year after having been drafted by Columbus in 2004. Of his goal, he said, “It’s really, really a good feeling. Probably something you’ll remember the rest of your life. I haven’t taken pressure that much about scoring, there’s so much other things going on in my mind, it’s like adjusting to this little different hockey culture that you’ve got over here. I haven’t been worried too much, but it’s kind of, at least I’ve scored once, one goal in my NHL career.”
That’s something I think about all the time. What if you played in the league and never scored? How much would one goal mean? This guy gets it.
The Oil came out in period three and scored at one minute when Sam Gagne put a pass back out front, and Corey Potter, standing there alone, reached out and swept the puck into the net on his backhand for his second of the season.
The Kings had been standing still in the neutral zone to allow the turnover which led to Gagne’s heading into the zone on the fly.
Things got no better as the game wound down, as the team managed just nine shots in period three and no goals. In truth even those shots were not what they looked like. None except perhaps Dustin Brown’s high wrister were a threat. Coach Renney attributed the win to “paying attention to the little things. We managed the puck better as the game went on, and didn’t deviate from that. When everybody’s making little sacrifices to win the hockey game, you get those results.” The details he was talking about included blocking shots and limiting shots as well as sticking to an unnamed game plan. He also credited his goalie for his quality play.
“Sacrifices, then counter. Counter attack. We’ve got some speed and quickness, and we can counter attack pretty quickly after we shut it down in front of our net. We’ve talked a lot about this in the last couple of weeks, actually. The bottom line is, if you get pucks down low, in the blue paint, you often get a second chance for a loose puck.”
Emblematic of the night—Mike Richards stole a puck and took it to the net later in period three. With the defense starting to close in, instead of continuing on the short path to the goalmouth, he passed backwards, to Kopitar, who shot the puck wide. On purpose? There was a slight chance, and it bounced off the end boards to out past Richards, who couldn’t get a stick on it. No shot. No chance. That’s the Kings right now.
Brian’s brand new book, My Country Is Hockey, comes out this week. Grab it soon to learn about hockey, Canada, the US, and the world.