In a series dominated by two goalies at the peak of their games, it only made sense that Marc-Andre Fleury and Jonathan Quick would do it once more Sunday night with their series returned to LA.
Save for save, they matched each other, Quick helped by a goal that eluded Fleury off the stick of Alex Iafallo at 13:14 of the first period. That frame ended with the Golden Knights have fired eight shots, and the Kings eight as well. The second period saw the Kings increase that to 22 while Vegas got their number up only to 17.
Note that Fleury doesn’t quite think of the game as a battle with the other goalie. He said after the game, “It was so close right to the end. I felt like every shot, every goal matters. . . . I’m not trying to match him. I don’t play against him. I just try to deal with the shooters coming at me, and don’t worry about anything else. Just try to stop the next puck.”
But each shot was a beauty, and fans in the obviously sold-out Staples Center were gripped and awed by the display of these two guys, each of whom will, sooner or later, be in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The spectacular moments were many. In the first, a shot came to Quick, who bounced it up into the air after Eric Haula shot it. It went way into the air, and he corralled it on the way down.
The goal came when Dustin Brown went behind the net and slammed a defenseman off the puck, the gave it to Kopitar. He put it across the crease to Iafallo, who put the puck behind Fleury.
More Quick magic: Tomas Nosek went down the slot and took a low, hard shot. The save came off the leg and stick, one backing up the other.
Fleury got some help in the second period when Kopitar put a puck across to Carter on the left side. Carter had to double-clutch, or he would have gotten the shot off fast enough to go into the open side. As it was, Fleury had time to get across, way, way out of his net, to cut the angle and make the save.
Kempe and Doughty went down the ice and did a give-and-go, then put the puck to Toffoli for a one-timer. The save came from the leg pad, but Fleury had to do a full stretch to get to it.
The Kings had a power play in the middle of the period (their third of what would be four between the first two periods), and Pearson drove to the net with Toffoli following along. The puck went to the front, and Fleury made the save on Pearson. It went to Toffoli and he got a shot on the forehand, then spun around and did the same on the backhand. Two more leg saves. All of this before the first half of period two was over.
Iafallo had a shot near the end of the period from the deep slot, a one-timer that Fleury, again, got a leg on.
Period three saw Jonathan Marchessault come in from the point and drive a shot and Quick respond by diving over and kind of rolling as he did so, legs out to stop the puck.
Fleury responded by stopping Toffoli as he and Pearson came down two-on-one and shot long side low. It went off the blocker. At this point, it was 1-0 for the Kings, and nobody had scored since the first period.
Things unravelled a bit when the Kings allowed two goals in about twenty seconds to make it 3-1 in the third period. The first was James Neal on a play where he spun on the boards to elude defenseman Fantenberg and then went to the net and fired the puck straight in, low. Probably Quick would have that back if he could. It was a five-hole tally.
Neal was a little reluctant to talk about the goal’s beauty afterwards: “My little brother taught me it,” he said of his move. He lasted about a second before he gave away the joke with a laugh. Then someone asked him if it went by feel, and he said, “It was a good play by (Schmidt) getting gap back from the D. I think he pushed the D back so there was a tough gap on me, so I could make a play on him. I just tried to get around him as quick as I could so I could get a shot on him.”
The second goal of the period for Vegas, third overall, happened as a result of sleepy defense by the Kings. Off a faceoff, the puck went behind the LA net. Three Kings were there, including Doughty, and Smith passed it to Karlsson all alone in front. He naturally did what a goal-scorer does, and fired it into the net.
Neal said, “I think we’re going to be in all different situations in the playoff here if we want to make a run, and so we knew they weren’t going to go away. We knew the push they were going to have. We should just believe in ourselves and believe in our team, and hopefully good things are going to happen for us.”
The Kings thus blew a one-goal lead and turned it into a three-goal hole. Pierre-Edouard Bellemare explained the approach: “You know we have a strong game five-on-five. We show it the whole year long, and we just at no point, because we’re under, or because the time was running out, did we start changing our way to play. That’s the strongest part, the biggest part of tonight. They were coming hard, time after time, but we didn’t change our way to play . . . . At the end, it opened up for us.
They made it interesting by scoring when Fantenberg kept the puck on a broken play and it went from the point to the front of the net, waist-high. Kopitar was there to tip it in. Fleury had no chance. It happened with about two minutes to go and Quick out of the net. He left again with about 1:13 to go.
The Kings tried everything to get the puck to the net, but even their zone entries were off. They drove the puck in twice but did not catch up with it. Once, Carter messed around with the puck in the neutral zone, and that threw the line off entirely, wasting twenty seconds in the process.
One fan on twitter said something like, “It’s a shame to waste this when Jonathan Quick is playing some of the best hockey of his career,” and that’s exactly right. My only hope is that, if the Kings lose this series, fans will remember this as one of the great goaltender battles of all time, especially when taken in context with the prior two games.
The Kings outshot the Golden Knights 39-26, but they didn’t always make the best shots. They were on a mission to throw everything to the net, and that makes sense. It’s worked for other teams this playoff. But the Kings were often nowhere close to the deep zone space they need to be. They were on the outside.
LA did play a better game in the neutral zone than in games one and two, helped by the fact that they had the ability to get the puck up further, faster, than when Doughty (suspension for one game) and Muzzin (likely shoulder injury) had been out of action. But the LA lines, even as mixed by Stevens as the game went on, couldn’t produce the kind of chances that would get them the lead. Sure, Fleury was good. So was Quick. Their spectacularity (yeah, I know it’s not a word. I like it) cancelled out because they were each so good. That left it up to the other players, and Vegas was better that LA on this evening.
Cancel out the goalies, and what that leaves is who showed up on offense versus who made defensive mistakes.
The teams resume their battle on Tuesday in LA.
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