NEWARK — With 119 goals through 52 games — dead last in the NHL in scoring — the Los Angeles Kings — and Ilya Kovalchuk — came into the second of back-to-back games on their east coast swing with something to prove.
Mired in a scoring slump after signing a three-year, 18.75M contract in his return to the NHL after a five-year hiatus, the Russian enigma has epitomized the offensive struggles in L.A.
But all Kovalchuk, who spent four years in New Jersey (2009-’13) amassing 201 points in 222 games before unexpectedly announcing his “retirement” in 2013, needed was a little motivation.
Booed every time he stepped on the ice, Kovalchuk scored on his only shot of the game with 2:24 remaining in regulation after Tyler Toffoli scored twice and Dion Phaneuf added another in a span of 1:20 to begin the third period as the Los Angeles Kings regained The Midas Touch in a 5-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils at Prudential Center in Newark.
“It’s not something you’re expecting, but it’s OK you know, it’s their emotions and that’s how they react,” Kovalchuk said after the game. “I was actually happy that I scored — that’s the best answer.”
Adrian Kempe gave Los Angeles a 1-0 lead off a fine feed from Carl Hagelin 6:21 into the game, but New Jersey battled back to tie in the second when Pavel Zacha finished a behind-the-back pass from Jesper Bratt to make it 1-1. Despite peppering Kings’ goalie Jack Campbell with 20 shots through two frames, it would be the last time the Devils would solve the former Team USA National netminder from Port Huron, MI.
Toffoli gave L.A. its second lead of the game just 32 seconds into the third on the power play when his shot from Kopitar rang off the inside of the crossbar and out as the Kings regained the lead. Thirty-five seconds later, Michael Amadio tracked down a loose puck in the offensive zone before finding a streaking Toffoli who connected again to extend the Kings’ lead to 3-1. Adding further fuel to the fire, Phaneuf beat Devils’ goalie Keith Kinkaid for the third time in a span of 1:20 with a slapshot from the point 45 seconds later to put the Kings up 4-1 in a blink of an eye.
“We’ll take it — that’s for sure,” Campbell, who finished with 29 saves on 30 shots, said. “I honestly thought we looked better tonight. We played 60 minutes and everybody played great so we’ll take it.
“They still pushed hard,” Campbell continued. “They have a real fast team with some dynamic players and some guys that can really shoot the puck, but I thought we did a great job of playing ’em hard all night. It was just a big win for us.”
With a 4-3 victory over the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Monday night, the Kings have won two-of-three games to begin their east coach swing which started with a 4-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Saturday. Kovalchuk has regained some confidence as well, scoring for the fourth time in his last seven games, adding two assists. He is currently fourth on the team in scoring with 11 goals and 26 points behind Anze Kopitar (16-24-40), Dustin Brown (12-19-31) and Drew Doughty (5-24-29).
But what’s most concerning is Kovalchuk’s lack of accountability, defensively. With a +/- rating of minus-17 coming into the game, Ilya has become a real liability in his own zone — so much so that Kings’ head coach Willie Desjardins has benched him at times this season. But the former No. 1 overall pick in 2001 has shown improvement in that area as well — plus-3 in his last two games including a plus-2 effort in 13:59 of ice time against the Devils on Tuesday night.
“It’s pretty cool to experience that. I can’t believe these people boo Kovy because he’s the nicest guy in the world,” Campbell said with a laugh. “To see the game he had took a lot of mental toughness and just shows his character. We all love him so we’re happy to see him score and most importantly we won the game so we know he’s most happy about that.”
“We came in with a real good attitude, played a simple game and found a way to really keep pushing and we were able to break them,” Phaneuf, who tallied his first goal of the season. “We’ve been playing much better as of late. We’ve got to continue to keep going.”
Los Angeles (22-27-4, 48 points, 8th-place in the Pacific) has won three of their last four games. The Kings will continue their east coast tour at Philadelphia on Thursday, Boston on Saturday and Washington on Feb. 11.
New Jersey (20-25-7, 47 points, 8th-place in the Metropolitan) has lost three of its last five. The Devils are 17th in total offense with 152 goals (2.92 goals-per-game), but have yielded 176 as a team (3.34-goals-per-game), ranking near the bottom at 27th out of 31 teams. Kinkaid has performed admirably as Cory Schneider makes his return to the team following a conditioning stint, but it’s clear the netminder of the future is MacKenzie Blackwood.
“We have a lot of things we’ve got to try and work on,” Devils’ coach John Hynes said. “Whether it’s making decisions or trying to make the team better or whatever it may be that’s our challenge and we’ve got to make sure we dig into this one, review it again tomorrow then another game (against the New York Islanders) on Thursday so let’s see if we can improve.”
At the end of 60 minutes, the story was still Kovalchuk who was swarmed by media after playing in his first game in New Jersey since making his return to The League.
“Yeah, I think there are only two guys left who I played with on the Devils — time flies,” Kovalchuk said, referring to Devils’ veterans Andy Greene and Travis Zajac. “The younger guys have come in, like (Nico) Hischier — they’re a skilled group of guys there. This year is not their year, but they have a bright future.
“Like I said, we care about each other here — that’s the most important thing,” Kovalchuk said of the newfound camaraderie in Los Angeles. “With this group of guys we’ve got some experience. I just tried to focus because I knew there was going to be a lot of different emotions. I just tried to do my thing. I’m just trying to regroup and have a good end to the year.”
Written by John Christian Hageny / @JCCSPORTS
Special to HockeyClan
Main Image: Dustin Brown #23, Paul LaDue #2 and Anze Kopitar #11 of the Los Angeles Kings celebrate a Kings goal during the third period against the New Jersey Devils at the Prudential Center on February 05, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. The Kings defeated the Devils 5-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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