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The Kings Are Bridging The Generation Gap

Anze Kopitar celebrates his overtime game-winning goal
Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images

The Los Angeles Kings feel like an old team. Anže Kopitar, who's been oxygen for this franchise since his debut in 2006, remains a center-stage attraction at the end of his 18th year in the NHL. Drew Doughty, the defenseman who led the team in ice time when they won their first-ever Stanley Cup in 2012, still fills that role to this day. And while he doesn't share the long L.A. history of the other two, Cam Talbot is the Kings' main man in goal, and no other team's primary starter this season carried more years than his 36.

The outsized impact that these veterans exert, however, obscures the job the Kings have done bringing in a younger crop of skaters, even if they've failed to get over the first-round Oilers hump for the past two years. Adrian Kempe, drafted in 2014, has benefited from Kopitar's passes more than anyone as he's evolved into a stud. Trevor Moore, acquired in a savvy trade with the Leafs in 2020, just enjoyed a breakout year as the team's top scorer. Another goal-sniffing winger in Kevin Fiala, still just 27, was a no-brainer of a pick-up in 2022 when Minnesota realized they couldn't pay him. And Quinton Byfield, second overall pick in 2020, lived up to the hype after a few years of seasoning, notching 20 goals and 35 assists at just 21 years old.

There's a lot to be said for any team led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. But absent a pair of all-time greats in their prime, the L.A. roster fits together so nicely that even if, say, a piece like Viktor Arvidsson goes down with injury or Pierre-Luc Dubois struggles through an uncomfortable year, it doesn't ding the the larger body too badly. These Kings play disciplined, frustrating defensive hockey that puts a premium on keeping their opponents out of the danger zones, and though the flip side of that is a limited appetite for risk that prevents grade-A opportunities the other way, L.A. was still ninth in the league in shots on goal.

Game 1 for the Kings was just a mess, as they failed to show up in the first period and found themselves down 4-0 midway through the second. But given another chance in Edmonton on Wednesday, they provided something much better. The first two goals, including one just three minutes in, were a showcase of the Kopitar-Kempe connection, with Kopitar stopping a clearance before delivering his first assist of the night and then Kempe showing off some incredible hand-eye to catch a feed for a 2-0 score. The Oil Boys got one back with a banger from Brett Kulak, assisted by Draisaitl, but just as the crowd was getting on Talbot, Doughty earned a breakaway on a counterattack and charged right at Edmonton netminder Stuart Skinner for a 3-1 lead going into intermission. The Oilers were the more dynamic team over the rest of regulation, scoring thrice and forcing Talbot to make a heartstopping robbery of Draisaitl. But some neat skating from Byfield early in the third led to a flukey long-range goal, and Dylan Holloway's follow-up equalizer for Edmonton meant only that they must play some bonus hockey.

Overtime didn't take long. Two minutes in, the Kings had two men in their own zone, two on each center-ice board, and Kopitar at point. Their plan was to move the puck from back to front. Mikey Anderson sent it to Byfield on the wing, who was really just looking to get some kind of tip that would usher the puck across the blue line without prompting an icing. But Kopitar was ready to pounce on it, and lone Oilers defenseman Darnell Nurse was gliding away from the action as it developed. Kopitar put it on his stick, took a split second to aim before Nurse made a desperation dive, and beat Skinner glove-side high.

There's plenty of nostalgia in seeing Anže Kopitar be the hero once more, and if the Kings were in a situation like, for example, Alex Ovechkin's Capitals, that would probably have to be enough to tide fans over. But for as much as "Kopitar has three points and Doughty scores in a Kings victory" sounds like a story from a decade ago, this isn't a nostalgia play. It's just playoff hockey. Twice in a row now L.A. has fallen short of the Oilers in the first round. Again, this year, they're heavy underdogs. Winning three more of these games will require them to slow down the action and benefit from some bounces, which they've yet to do for more than 20 minutes at a time. If they fail, however, the future is still in pretty good hands.

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