Coming off their first home victory since Dec. 27, the Kings will host those same San Jose Sharks that they beat way back in 2023, when a stretch of two wins in a dozen games seemed more a nightmare than a reality.
They did prevail, 2-1, on Saturday over the Metropolitan Division-leading New York Rangers and former Kings cornerstone Jonathan Quick, providing much-needed promise while simultaneously exacerbating some broader concerns.
Although General Manager Rob Blake was non-committal on Quinton Byfield sliding back into the middle from the wing on Thursday, he was playing the pivot Saturday. His presence invigorated the third line, energizing Alex Laferriere and helping motivate Jaret Anderson-Dolan to make perhaps his strongest play of the campaign while creating Byfield’s game-winning goal.
Byfield, a natural center at every level until last season, was once again pedaling his way through the center of the ice with speed and force.
“In the first [period] I maybe had a tricycle, had to take off the training wheels, but I think I found my footing back down the middle,” said Byfield, whose work in the faceoff circle and defensively elicited plaudits from Coach Todd McLellan.
Yet drive down the middle was what the Kings expected from Pierre-Luc Dubois when they forced tectonic shifts in chemistry, personnel and salary-cap space to add a player who has often shown the sort of uninterested play without the puck that doomed former scoring champion Ilya Kovalchuk’s calamitous and truncated tenure with the Kings.
Defying the purported rationale of his acquisition on a night when Byfield demonstrated that the Kings had a prototypical center in their midst all along, Dubois was on the flank of team captain Anze Kopitar opposite 40-goal scorer Adrian Kempe.
The result? In 15:36 of ice time Dubois had no hits, shots, assists or goals, adding to his $68 million collection of exotic goose eggs.
In net, David Rittich was phenomenal, bolstering a penalty kill that had stolen points here or there for the Kings during their funk and flat out won them the game against the Rangers. They staved off the NHL’s second most efficient power-play unit three times, including a 6-on-4 advantage for the final 1:39 of the contest.
“In my mind, Rittich is starting on Monday,” McLellan said. “That’s not a reflection on (goalie Cam Talbot) at all, he’s going to the all-star game in two weeks, and he deserves to be there.”
Yet once again present-day reassurance hinted at long-term insecurity. Talbot and Rittich have been shrewd additions, earning less than $2 million combined in base salary after Blake prioritized Dubois’s addition over an established No. 1 netminder. While they’ve both performed more than admirably this season, neither is under contract for next year, when Talbot will be 37.
However, these all seem like first-world problems, not only in the face of a gutsy win to create a bit of positive momentum, but also in comparison to the Sharks’ myriad woes.
Even after a 5-3 victory over the Ducks on Saturday, they had the NHL’s lowest point total. They’ve allowed the most goals and scored the fewest. General Manager Mike Greer inherited one of the most tangled salary situations in the league, forcing his hand in trading last year’s Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson to Pittsburgh and salvaging what he could for outgoing star free agent Timo Meier in a deal with New Jersey. On a positive note, captain Logan Couture played his first game of the season Saturday and recorded an assist.
Elsewhere in the division, the Edmonton Oilers won their 13th straight game on Saturday and also intensified an already acrimonious rivalry with the Kings by adding a supervillain from their past, former Duck Corey Perry, on Sunday.