There’s not one thing that you can pick out that accounts for the LA Kings’ success thus far. It’s not superstar scoring. It’s not a goalie standing on his head. It’s not a rock-solid defense. It’s all of those things, which is why Coach McLellan cited a single word in his comments about his team in advance of their game with Pittsburgh on Thursday night: “Depth.”
This was fully on display as the team beat Las Vegas in Nevada on Wednesday night by a 4-1 margin. Goals came from Kempe, Moore, Dubois, and Kopitar. The last one was into an empty net, unremarkable maybe, but not when you take this stat to heart: This was the captain’s 400th career goal. He has now played 1305 games, counting the one on Thursday. That record surpasses the number of the previous record holder, Dustin Brown. To put this in perspective, Kopitar will break a lot of team markers this year and next, should he continue to play, and there’s no reason to think he won’t.
In fact, he got to the record-making fast versus the Penguins, notching an assist to make him second on the Kings all-time list behind Marcel Dionne. Kopitar has 1155 points, Dionne 1307.
His coach, Todd McLellan, said after the game, “It seems to be happening every night. The sun comes up and it goes down, and Kopi sets a record, and we move on. It should be recognized . . . it’s happening over and over again, and it’s great for him.”
Interesting side note: with the events in England that shocked the hockey world this past week, Kopitar has taken action. He started wearing a neck guard for what he labeled, “That extra level of security” in comments made from the bench Thursday during the warmup.
Thursday’s lineup was the same as had been used in the prior eight games, with the exception, of course, of the netminder. Cam Talbot has started nine of LA’s games to date, with a 7-2-0-1 record. Pheonix Copley has taken to the net three times with a record of one win and one game pushed to OT but lost. Thursday Copley was in net in the second of a back-to-back pair of games.
The game was kind of like Tuesday’s contest between Pittsburgh and the Ducks—rather slow and unspectacular to start. The first period featured a wrap-around goal by Crosby. Where was the Kings’ depth? Deep in his net, on his belly, out of the play. Goaltending is an issue, no matter what McLellan might say. He supported Copley in post-game comments. “We’ve seen him do it [play well] over and over again. He’s played, what, six or seven periods for us this year, and we’re going to lose confidence in him? Not a chance. He’s a good goaltender, our guys believe in him, and it’s hard when you haven’t played for a while.”
The Kings displayed some pushback in the form of a shorthanded goal by Carl Grundstrom, who redirected a Kopitar pass after Kopitar dug the puck out from along the boards on the right side.
The second frame also saw a goal from each side, and here you’ll see the depth theory exploded once more, because it’s not from the Kings’ third or fourth line that the goals are being produced, but by the stars, in this case Adrian Kempe.
Then there’s Quinton Byfield. On one shift, he had two great chances. The first was a wrister coming down the slot, and the second a one-timer from the right hash marks. After the super-shift, he appeared on the video board, and the fans cheered as he went back to the bench. He would eventually get a secondary assist on the Kings’ second goal. He plays on the top line with Kopitar and Kempe. On the season, he is top-five in team scoring, and observers are saying “Finally, he’s getting it” after a not-stellar start to his NHL sojourn.
Their coach said after the game that each in his own way has matured. “They’ve both matured in different time frames. They’re both confident now. Interestingly enough, I believe [Kempe] was drafted as a center as well and now he’s on the wing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. And they have a pretty good center iceman now [Kopitar] who stabilizes things as well.” He cited both mental and physical development as complementing each other.
The third period opened with a goal of pure skill as Crosby floated a puck deep in the zone on the diagonal to Guentzel, who put a stick on it to redirect it by Copley. It was the first goal of the night that you could say the goalie had no culpability for.
The Kings countered it by going hard to the net, three guys with three whacks at the puck, and finally a goal by Kevin Fiala, coming late to the net and sweeping the puck past the netminder on his backhand. Fiala is another star who is producing top-three scoring stats so far this year. Of his play on the night, Coach McLellan said that he could put the puck on the net a little bit more. “Especially on the power play. Something has to happen there. He’s got such a good shot. He’s got good vision. But he did get a real big goal today, and we needed that on a night where we just weren’t real sharp.”
The game ended regulation 3-3 and the Pens eventually won it, on a goal by Bryan Rust after his first (apparent) winner was called back as offside.
Is the metaphor of depth overused in hockey? Maybe. And on this night, the Kings didn’t really exhibit it, though nobody’s going to complain about the stars getting all the goals and assists. They were let down in net as a balance to that, with a couple of the goals ones that, despite the coach’s optimism, were not the kind that can get past a netminder who plans to be around for the playoffs.