The Kings have not only a new coach but a new motto: “Let’s [freaking] go!”
Jim Hiller, who coached the Kings to a 4-0 triumph over rival Edmonton in his debut, said his club made a decision on Day 1 that “it was time to get moving again.”
As they shuffled onto Buffalo for Tuesday’s matchup with the Sabres that will kick off a four-game road trip, Hiller expressed no concern about his group’s ability to maintain its enthusiasm even after the novelty of a coaching change faded.
“It never ends, it just never ends. That’s the NHL. If you take it a little bit easy … you run the risk of losing that confidence again,” said Hiller, who was an assistant for the Kings during a calamitous month that saw them win the fewest games in the NHL. “None of us want to go through that again. So, I think it’s pretty easy to have a good day again.”
The Kings might get another boost in Buffalo as Viktor Arvidsson traveled and has been inching closer to a return. Arvidsson underwent his second back surgery since May of 2022 back in October, sending him on another months-long recovery journey.
Even without Arvidsson, the Kings looked rejuvenated after a nine-day pause. Captain Anze Kopitar wasn’t the only ailing skater. Trevor Lewis appeared more spry and scored a goal against the Oilers on Saturday, in a match in which Vladislav Gavrikov (knee) regained significant mobility and effectiveness.
Gavrikov’s partner Matt Roy played a nearly flawless game that saw him contribute an assist while dominating defensively. He and Gavrikov blocked three shots each to equal the individual total of Drew Doughty (six). In total, the Kings stymied 25 Edmonton shot attempts, with 19 of those blocks coming from their defensemen.
“Blocking shots isn’t fun, [but], when you do it collectively, it becomes fun,” Hiller said. “It becomes something where you don’t want to let the next guy down, ‘I’ve got to block mine [because] he blocked his.’ That, in the end, believe it or not, becomes fun, because it’s a team and a brotherhood.”
Roy is an unrestricted free agent to be, as is David Rittich, whose first shutout as a King further cemented his position as their top goalie at the moment. Quinton Byfield, who could become a restricted free agent on July 1, spearheaded the Kings’ attack with three points.
“It’s all about confidence. It’s been building the whole year. When you’ve got it going, it feels nice having the puck,” Byfield said.
The Kings got a strong outing from the player who, contractually speaking, will be around for the longest foreseeable period, Pierre-Luc Dubois. His fluttering, far-side power play goal highlighted a night where he was more active and engaged than he has been in recent memory. Hiller thought it was his best game as a King and was pleased to see Dubois competing with more gusto.
“It’s time to have fun again, it’s fun to come to the rink with a smile on our faces,” said Dubois, who compared the coaching change to a goalie switch and a reset button. “We’re together, there’s no doubt in here. The last 20 games haven’t been the way we’ve wanted them to go, but there’s absolutely no doubt in here.”
The Kings’ newfound confidence and exuberance will next be on display in Buffalo, where the Sabres remain on track to miss the playoffs for the 13th straight season. Of the four major North American sports leagues, only the NFL’s New York Jets have as long of a drought.
They beat the Kings, 5-3, on Jan. 24 and finished that road trip with a victory in San Jose. They’ve dropped both of their games since the All-Star break. Casey Middelstadt leads the team in scoring and plus-minus rating, but that has not stopped the 25-year-old pivot from being at the center of rampant trade speculation ahead of the March 8 deadline.
KINGS AT SABRES
When: Tuesday, 4 p.m. PT
Where: KeyBank Center, Buffalo, N.Y.
TV: Bally Sports West