From his back, the man of the night pumped his fists and wildly nodded his head. First, he screamed. Then, he cracked a smile.
This wasn’t the calm, quiet Jeff Carter the hockey world has come to know over the last 15 years. But after scoring the game-winning goal in his 1,000th NHL game, even the Kings’ usually stoic scorer recognized the moment. The storyline was too perfect for him to not break character, too poetic for anything other than a candid celebration.
“I just felt like that was going to happen,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told Fox Sports West. “Jeff’s a goal-scorer and has scored big goals like that his whole career. I don’t think anyone is too shocked in here.”
So much of Saturday’s game, a 4-3 Kings win over the Vegas Golden Knights that was decided by Carter’s tie-breaking tip-in with 7:18 remaining, was befitting of the forward’s landmark career.
When Carter was recognized on the video board in the opening minutes, cameras caught him challenging an official. Later in the game, the public address announcer revealed Carter’s 1,000th game jersey would be auctioned off for the Kings Care charity. Earlier in the week, his wife, Megan, asked the franchise not to give her family any gifts, but make a donation to the club’s foundation instead.
And, after his brief burst of excitement, Carter tried to downplay his emotions postgame.
“Nothing special about it,” he claimed of the goal, reverting back to his normal non-attention-seeking self. “Won a faceoff, shoot a puck, go to the net.”
Carter’s career has followed an uncommon two-part arc. A brief 39-game detour with the Columbus Blue Jackets aside, his story can be split almost evenly between a pair of franchises – like two volumes of a book in near-equal length and importance.
Carter spent the first six seasons and 461 games of his career in Philadelphia. On a veteran Flyers team with Stanley Cup aspirations, the big-bodied and soft-spoken Ontario, Canada-native had to grow up quickly. Donning orange and black, he made a name for himself around the league, tallying at least 50 points in four straight seasons.
“That was good for me, to see how they handled things,” Carter said on Friday, recalling his early days playing alongside the likes of Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher, and Simon Gagne. “[They] showed us the right way to do things.”
With the Kings, Carter has blossomed into a full-fledged veteran. Since arriving via a trade with Columbus in February 2012, he has experienced some of his highest highs (Stanley Cup titles in 2012 and 2014) and lowest lows (a torn ankle tendon in 2017 and a gradual decline in personal production ever since). He became a leader in the locker room, and a husband and father at home.
If his time in Philadelphia showed him how to make it in the league, his tenure in L.A. has taught him to stay there.
“I was lucky when I came here, because I knew a lot of the guys,” Carter said, adding that former Kings coaches Darryl Sutter and John Stevens “made it very clear what your role is … Everything was laid out, and everything fell into place.”
It only made sense Carter celebrated his 1,000th at Staples Center on Saturday, in a game that saw the Kings squander a 3-1 lead before he won a draw and deflected defenseman Matt Roy’s shot from the point late in the third.
“I’ve stuck to what got me to where I am,” Carter said. “That’s straight lines and trying to work hard every day. Not straying from my path.”
In the Kings’ Cup-winning years, that mind-set made Carter a key missing piece for a team struggling to get over the championship hump. Now he’s a role model for a club facing an uncertain rebuild for the future, the perfect example for which the next wave of Kings players can follow.
“I don’t think guys that play 1,000 games stay and have bad habits, or are players who don’t lead the right way,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “Carts does those things night in and night out.”
Teammates swarmed around Carter’s locker following Saturday’s win. Assistant coach Marco Sturm delivered a handshake. Captain Anze Kopitar’s young son walked up to say congratulations. Soaking up the rare sentimental moment, Carter simply sat back and smiled again.
“It’s been a blast,” he said. “I was lucky enough to come and be a part of it at the right time. Made some really good friends here. It’s fun to see everybody grow up. Especially with the new guys coming in, as we transition to a younger team, it keeps me energized and feeling young.”