Jonathan Quick found himself starting in the LA Kings’ net for the third game in a row on Saturday night, despite having been pulled against Colorado in a 9-3 loss on Wednesday. The Kings had no room for fooling around, as they came into the game sitting third in the Pacific with 88 points and the knowledge that up in Edmonton, the Vegas team had lost their game to the Oilers, 4-0, and thus given the Kings a huge break.
The opponent on this night? Someone from the opposite Conference, the Columbus Blue Jackets. They had nothing to lose, and nothing to gain except for playing spoiler, since their playoff chances were to all good effects dead weeks ago. They were featuring Kent Johnson and Nick Blankenburg, both college players who came in after playing the end of the Frozen Four championship in a losing effort for Michigan.
Lineup changes for LA included the deletion of Byfield, Grundstrom, and Vilardi and the addition of Andreas Athanasiou, in on the first line with Kopitar and Kempe, among other additions. Dustin Brown was playing his third game since a gruesome injury to his little finger a few weeks ago. Athanasiou had missed 17 games with an upper body injury.
The last time these teams met, the Kings won a 4-3 game in OT, Arvidsson getting a hat trick goal in OT to seal the win.
Should LA win, they would open up a three-point gap on Vegas. Not exactly comfort, but advantage, and with just a handful of games left to play, any advantage matters.
The Kings got going early. Dustin Brown picked up a puck chipped off the boards by Blake Lizotte and streaked down the right side, choosing not to pass to his compadre, Iafallo, who was with him, but to blast a wrister past Elvis Merzlikins at 1:41 gone.
They added another when Viktor Arvidsson created a loose puck, Danault forced it up ice, and Arvidsson and Moore touched it going up ice before Danault got into the Columbus zone for a slam shot that finished the play in the back of the net. It was Danault’s 24th of the year. He had five all of last year. He has never scored 20 goals in a year prior to this season. The last three seasons put together, he had 30 goals. He’ll likely not eclipse that this season, but he’ll come close.
The Kings were ahead 12-3 in shots and 2-0 on the scoreboard as period one waned. Their speed was completely outdoing the Blue Jackets, something that would have been a bit unthinkable in prior years.
The second period saw the Blue Jackets get their only goal, close to the start of the frame. The Kings left the front of the net unguarded after Quick drifted too far over on a play and opened the cage. Sean Kuraly put the puck into the net. Meyer and Nyquist assisted. That would end the scoring on the evening. Kuraly, btw, was just coming back from a Covid break.
The Kings almost extended the lead shortly after the 2-1 goal when Kempe shot the puck and got his own rebound. The puck was loose, but the referee blew an early whistle because he couldn’t see it from the other side of the cage. Columbus responded with a shift where Laine took over, streaking across the crease with the puck but not getting away a shot. Columbus ruined their momentum with an offensive zone high-sticking penalty shortly after. The Kings’ PP was draggy, though, and not dangerous.
Halfway through the game, it was 2-1 Kings ahead, with the shots 21-10 for LA. The Kings poured on the pressure late in the period on a four-on-three to no effect. By midway in period three, the score stood, and the shots were 33-20, LA’s favor.
Columbus’s PP was as bad as the Kings’ had been all night. This was never more evident than late in the game, when Iafallo took a high-sticking call chasing a puck on the boards in the offensive zone. About three minutes were left in the game. Columbus, despite pulling Mirzlikins, got absolutely nothing going on the PP. (There’s a reason why some clubs don’t sniff the playoffs.) They chipped the puck around the offensive zone but didn’t put anything close to meaningful on the Kings’ net. The same was true with the PP over and the goalie still out. Bjorkstrand was messing around, failing to pass, failing to shoot, with 12 seconds left. And so it ended as it had been since .53 of period two, 2-1 for LA. Not exciting, but satisfying. As McLellan said after, “Ugly, from behind, we’ll celebrate a win any way we can this time of year.” He noted that the game was “Recovery from that beatdown in Colorado, but I had a good feeling that we could gather ourselves and be productive again.” They lost that game 9-3. He noted the checking was back where it needed to be as part of the winning formula.
Los Angeles thus guarded their flanks from a Vegas threat. They exit the night three points up on Vegas, but having played one more game. Danault played a good game, and is cruising. Athanasiou played a solid return game. He said afterwards, “I felt ready. It’s just a matter of getting the legs under you. . . . It just feels good to play hockey again.” He said he and the team are aware of how important the Kings’ remaining games are.
The Kings keep hoping to get more players back, though not Doughty, who is done for the year. What’s not certain is who would start in goal for the Kings should the playoffs happen for them. Quick has earned his starts of late, though Petersen was supposed to be the heir apparent to the (no, I’m not going to say throne) job. Despite being pulled early on Wednesday, Quick was back in force on Saturday, and he never let down, though neither was he sorely tested.
Statistically, the game looked like this: shots, 38-22 for the Kings; hits, 29-25 for Columbus; faceoffs, exactly even at 50% each.
This was the third anniversary of Todd McLellan’s hiring by the Kings. Obviously, life was far different on that day in 2019, and nobody could have anticipated the three years that have transpired since.
Columbus goes to Anaheim to play the Ducks Sunday. The Kings play in Anaheim on Tuesday.
Brian Kennedy is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.