These opening night shindigs against San Jose rarely go the Kings’ way. There was the 4-0 spanking that put a damper on their 2014 banner-raising ceremony. The following season saw another drubbing from the Sharks on opening night, this time a 5-1 result that foreshadowed their eventual fall against San Jose in the first round of the playoffs. The next year was a slightly more competitive affair, but they failed to spoil the Sharks’ opening night festivities, falling 2-1 in San Jose.
So with the Kings failing to win a single game in the pre-season and generally looking out of sync throughout, it is safe to say expectations were not high they would break their opening night losing streak against a loaded Sharks team. And it indeed looked to be a long night, as San Jose broke through with two quick goals mid-way through the first period.
With the Kings’ fourth line (or was it their third line?) on the ice, Nate Thompson carried the puck through the neutral zone but was unable get it deep, handing it off to Joe Thornton. Thornton eventually found an open Marc-Edouard Vlasic, who flung a quick shot towards the net that hit the arm of Timo Meier and re-directed past Jonathan Quick.
Three minutes later, another turnover by Thompson led to Evander Kane finding open space and roofing a shot over Quck’s left shoulder. While Quick looked disappointed in himself for not stoping the tough-angle shot, it was an absolute snipe by Kane.
The second goal seemed to finally wake the listless Kings up, as they managed their first sustained forecheck of the period. In particular, the re-united That 70’s Line looked dangerous throughout the period, with Tyler Toffoli just missing a wide open opportunity.
But it would be the top line that would finally get on the board, as a Derek Forbort shot caromed off a screening Alex Iafallo and right to Anze Kopitar, who quickly corralled the puck and tucked it behind Martin Jones.
The Kings would carry that momentum into the second period. This time, Toffoli took advantage of the newly-hot boards at Staples Center. Forbort found himself deep in the Kings’ zone, wrestling the puck away from Kevin Lebanc and kicking it back to Tanner Pearson. Pearson threw it at the net as his momentum carried him away from the play and it went wide but bounced perfectly behind Jones to his left, where Toffoli was waiting to capitalize.
While the more familiar names in this rivalry were on the scoresheet, the biggest story of the night likely surrounded the newcomers on both teams. The Sharks, naturally, were excited to show off their shiny new Erik Karlsson, in the familiar spot of leading his team in ice time. There was even more intrigue on the side of the Kings, where Ilya Kovalchuk would play his first NHL game in five years.
For his part, the 35 year-old did not look out of place playing against his toughest competition in several years. He kept pace and was noticeably dangerous with the puck on his stick. He did seem to struggle a bit finding chemistry with his new line mates, constantly just a beat or two off from generating a meaningful scoring chance.
The Kings seemed the most eager to unveil him in the power play, the place where he basically invented the “Ovi Spot.” And while the Kings had no shortage of opportunities against the especially chippy Sharks, their power play failed to generate any sustained pressure throughout the night.
The Kings futile power play caught the attention of Twitter snark-maven Tyler Dellow throughout the night:
The Kings are one of a few teams to still deploy the traditional three forwards/two defensemen power play arrangement and the lack of creativity is apparent. While in some of their later attempts there was a clear effort to try and get Kovalchuk into the left circle for his deadly one-timer, the poor zone entries and lack of movement made it nearly impossible.
The Sharks, for their part, are an excellent penalty killing team, finishing second to the Kings last season. Jim Fox noted several times during the broadcast about their forwards’ willingness to be aggressive in getting their sticks in the lanes to disrupt passes. This was all too familiar to anyone who closely watched their four-game sweep against Vegas in last year’s playoffs, so this is a coaching issue that needs to be addressed. There is far too much talent on the roster to be this anemic with the man advantage.
Perhaps the biggest story of the night on the Kings’ side of things was not Kovalchuk but rather the introduction of young winger Austin Wagner. Seen as an eventual depth player just a month ago, a strong training camp and a few injuries found the young speedster on the opening night roster.
Calling him “speedster” might be selling him short. He was easily the fastest player on the ice, three times separating himself from the defense for a scoring opportunity. As advertised, he will get to the net but struggles to finish. Though he came awfully close on one of his opportunities:
In all three of his breakaways, he was sprung by Michael Amadio, who had some obvious chemistry with Wagner after spending the year with him in Ontario last season. Despite heavy praise for Amadio from coach Stevens throughout the preseason, Amadio trailed all Kings’ skaters in ice time, receiving just over two minutes a period. Oddly, it appeared that Nate Thompson was being double-shifted between the bottom two lines, alternately playing with Amadio-Wagner and Kempe-Lewis.
Thompson is an adept penalty killer (as he is used to being pinned in his own end) and was his usual proficient self in the face-off circle, winning 70% of his draws. He really has no business on the ice beyond those two events and the Kings would be best served seeing what the more well-rounded Amadio could do with an increase in ice time and more competent line mates.
The third period had the Sharks slightly in control of the action, but no further scoring ensued, earning both teams a point. Both teams rolled out their new toys to open 3v3 overtime, with the Kovalchuk joining Kopitar and Doughty to start the session. This would be Kovalchuk’s first look at the 3-on-3 format and he did not exactly gel with Kopitar and Doughty, looking a bit unsure of himself as the Kings failed to generate any chances.
The Kings were victimized by two extended shifts in the overtime session, the second of which proved to be fatal. With Toffoli trying to get off the ice at the end of his shift, Karlsson sustained the pressure, forcing Toffoli to stay on to back check. Karlsson fed the puck to Logan Couture, who found Leblanc in the middle to tip home the game winner.
While the Sharks wield some dangerous weapons, the Kings were right there with them in pace. San Jose won the shot battle, 33-21, but actual scoring chances were much closer, with the Kings actually leading in high-danger chances, 16-12. Adrian Kempe may have been the Kings best forward on the night, using his speed to disrupt plays and being assertive on the forecheck. Alex Iafallo was also noticeable, doing the dirty work on the top line.
The Kings look like a team that is still trying to find themselves, particularly with the injury to Dustin Brown disrupting the balance of the lines. Kopitar and Kovalchuk seemed to get more in sync as the game drew on, something they can both hopefully build on Sunday against Detroit. That 70’s Line was effective, though Pearson and Toffoli seemed to carry the load, while Jeff Carter did not look like his old, dynamic self. His bounce back this season could make or break the Kings’ fortunes.
The rivalry with the Sharks is alive and well, with Meier slashing Doughty on the knee and Barclay Goodrow delivering an elbow to the head of Muzzin that should draw the attention of the Department of Player Safety. While both incidents provided a scare, to their credit, the Kings were uncharacteristically disciplined in this game. Perhaps leery of San Jose’s potentially deadly power play unit, the three penalties they did take were of the incidental variety.
While not the result they wanted, the Kings are happy to take a point for their efforts as they look forward to hosting the slightly-less imposing Red Wings on Sunday. Puck drop at 7:30 PT.