Surprise! They yell it when you enter your front door and a birthday party previously unbeknownst to you is about to commence. They yelled at Staples Center, too, only this wasn’t any birthday party. It was a coming out party—Jonathan Quick was back!

Was it misdirection or lack of specific knowledge that had even people familiar with the doings of the team saying that the return would not be until sometime in March? To fans, it didn’t matter. Their hero and savior was back to lead them to the playoffs. Toffoli was to say after the game, when asked when he knew they would have #32 in net Saturday versus Anaheim, “Before you guys.” Friday, in fact, the team was informed.

Truth be told, the team wouldn’t even be in the playoff conversation without Budaj having done what he did through the first 55 games of the season. The last couple of weeks? Not so much, as he lost four of five. But the LA team is by no means out of it, albeit that a couple of wins of late would have them much closer to the playoffs than they are. They were third in the wildcard race at the start of the day, but five points back of Nashville having played the same number of games.

Later in the afternoon, Sutter was to say, “He’s an emotional leader of this hockey team, and it’s good to have him back,” obviously speaking of Quick. But he gave Budaj credit, too. “Peter Budaj has really given us a lot of quality starts this year. You look at, we are fortunate to still be in a playoff race, with 28 wins in 58 or 59 starts, or whatever he’s got. It hasn’t been a problem for us.” He cited other failed goalies this year, saying they’ve had only one win from another starter this season.

He also said he would manage Quick’s playing time so as not to fatigue him in the stretch.

Surprise number two: for the first time this year, and perhaps ever (those of you with longer memories than I have for this player can tweet me the truth @growinguphockey), Marian Gaborik was scratched for no other reason than poor play.

Poor play? How about six goals and seven assists in 38 games? That translates to a 30 point full season (he was hurt the first segment of the year, you might remember, because of the Otherworld Cup. Isn’t that what they called that joke tournament that took place in September?) So to give him a bit of a think, it seems, Sutter sat him. In his place? Jordan Nolan.

OK, so what that really means is that Gaborik was out and Nolan in in the one-to-one that the lineup demands. But in reality, it was Adrian Kempe who took Gaborik’s spot with Brown and Kopitar on the Kings’ second line. Nolan slotted in with the third, or fourth, line (depending upon your POV), playing with King and Shore. The other group was Lewis, Dowd, and Clifford. The other line not yet mentioned—of course, Pearson with Carter and Toffoli. And Sutter got the jab in to his big guns, saying that the only way they’re going to win is to get some goals from those guys.

Did any of these changes work? Well, the Ducks got the first goal of the game, on speed, in period one. Silfverberg intercepted a puck in the neutral zone and went wide. He passed it to Kesler in the left zone and he scooted it to the front for Cogliano, who redirected it into the net. Quick? No chance.

But the surprises weren’t over. The next one involved knockdowns. Three separate times, Ducks players hit the deck, hard. McNabb checked Getzlaf at the boards and saw the captain of the Ducks limp back to the bench. Someone hit Vatanen behind the Ducks’ net with a hard bodycheck and saw him stay in the play, then wobble to the bench. Concussion protocol missed it, and he was back a couple of shifts later. Silfverberg took a hard hit that knocked him down mid-game.

It went the other way, too. Perry hit and decked Kopitar in a scrum in the slot in front of the net. That turned into a bit of a general melee.

And then Carter hit Kesler with a high elbow at the right boards in the LA end. You don’t do that to Kesler. And Carter paid. The play went on for a few seconds, with Kesler behind Carter likely warning him with a little poke of the stick. They separated and Kesler did what he’s paid to, trying to put the puck in the net. Then after the whistle, he followed Carter, who turned around and threw off his gloves.

Big mistake. They engaged briefly, but long enough for Kesler to pop a right hand directly on the button, buckling Carter’s knees and putting him nearly down. He popped right up, but a linesman and a ref were there right away to separate the two. Good thing for the Kings’ 77. Stupid move to take that challenge.

A reporter asked Sutter about it after the game, framing his question with, “Do you have to tell Jeff Carter not to fight?” The answer he got: “It’s a really physical game, and when you talk about guys who play each other a lot . . . that’s way better than . . . .” Halt! This answer got entirely incomprehensible at this point, trailing off into, “you’re not playing, a, what do you guys play? Badminton? If it was badminton, I’d tell Jeff Carter not to fight, but it’s hockey. It might happen once in a while.” Sure, we know what he meant. But the guy who asked the question knows his hockey, and he doesn’t deserve to be treated like this. You don’t like the question, just don’t answer it, like normal.

Amongst all of this might have been lost the story that Bernier, still in net for the Ducks, turned aside 13 shots in period two to keep his team up by a goal. You might recall reading my story of Wednesday night, where his team said how happy they were about his win against Boston, which came kind of as a reward for his good play a game before that and their poor play.

Well, period three began not so well. Poor Bernier; it’s not fair, really, since he hasn’t had much chance to prove himself this year, but the thing about backups is, there are only two kinds—completely forgettable, and those who come up to it when called upon. He’s dangerously close to becoming the latter.

The first goal came when a puck was thrown to the front by Pearson. Bernier got a leg on it but didn’t control. Toffoli got the rebound and shot. It hit Bernier’s catching glove and dropped. Toffoli hadn’t gone anywhere, and he poked it in beside the goalie’s right skate, which he couldn’t get right to the post.

Then the wheels fell off. The Kings scored again. Not Bernier’s fault. It was Carter down the left wing. He held and deked around the sliding defenseman, put it over to Toffoli, and watched him redirect it in.

The next one was the kind of goal that the Bruins kept looking for the other night early in Anaheim. It was a long slapshot that was redirected by Brown so that it went from a trajectory that was putting it wide into one that sneaked past the goalie’s outstretched glove and between his arm and body.

So in short order, a 1-0 lead was a 3-1 deficit. Disappointing for Ducks’ fans, but for those of you who live elsewhere than here, it was the kind of game where incredible speed and skill—almost the kind you’d expect to see from a Pittsburgh—were on display. This is hockey at its best.

What’s the message in all of this? You’re missing it if you think there’s no good hockey going on out here, and no good gossip and intrigue surrounding the teams, either.

And I’m not even up to the Ducks. For them, it was the debut of Patrick Eaves, who lately came from Dallas for a conditional second-round draft pick. He was on a line that had had a young kid, Kerdiles, on it the other night versus Boston. That was Perry and Rakell as the other two.

Eaves wasn’t super-noticeable in his 16 minutes, but there were times when he went to the net with Perry and jammed away for the puck. We’ll see how he works out as the days go on, but on the face of it, the deal to get him and his career-high 37 points to date (21 goals) seems like a pretty good thing on the part of Murray the GM. He ended the night with 5 of the team’s 33 shots.

Afterwards, he commented, “I think I got my legs under me halfway through the first there. I was turned upside down there for a second, but I’m happy to be here and be a part of this group. It’s only been one game, and I feel like I’m a part of it. The guys have been great. I’ve played against a lot of these guys for a while, but it’s nice to be able to join them.”

He said that he would get caught up on the systems of the Ducks over the break, referencing their upcoming five-day break

The Ducks had another chance to do well for themselves with about six and a half to go, when Pearson took a hooking penalty in his own zone (probably a good one, as both Vatanen and the puck were heading to the slot before Pearson slowed the Finn down with his graphite). They didn’t get anything going. Why? Because the Kings were in the lanes, blocking shots. The Ducks became indecisive with the puck and failed to make a decent attempt at closing the gap.

Eaves fired over the net. Rakell had Quick make a leg save on him, Perry picked up a rebound and fired wide, and Fowler poked a puck at the net. Also wide. Had the pace of the game, its constant hitting, and the punishment they were taking done them in?

 
Perhaps the Kings’ stability on defense was due to having Quick back there as the last line. Toffoli afterwards said, “It’s exciting having Quickie back. He’s one of the best, if not the best goalie in the league. He made some huge saves back there when we needed it.” He later added, “I think the fans were more excited than the guys on the ice were,” with a laugh. “Obviously having Quickie, we know we can trust him. We knew we could trust Budes [Buda] too; it doesn’t really make a difference.” Yes it does. “Quickie made some huge saves for us, kept us in the game early, and we scored some goals.”

Quick ended up first star, probably not deserved. The Kings scored an empty net goal to make it 4-1. Toffoli, the real first star, had two including the winner. Brown had one. Carter got the empty net one. Brown, as was said, had the other. So all the guys that will propel this team to its wins were on the scoresheet.

The Ducks were disappointed to go into their break this way, said Carlyle after. The Kings left the day three points out of the wildcard. They now go on the road for two games. Their key, both this week and over time: beat Calgary, holder of a wildcard spot and four-time opponent as the season winds down.

 

Notes

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