Column: Pressure is on Quinton Byfield and Kings in elimination game
In almost any other situation, in almost any other game, Quinton Byfield and the Kings would have celebrated his third-period goal Tuesday night against Edmonton with rounds of hugs and cheers instead of quick fist-bumps and a respectful tap or two on his helmet.
On almost any other occasion his goal, which he snapped home from the slot off a fine centering pass from Gabe Vilardi, would have sparked debates over whether Byfield had finally added the offensive dimension that has been missing from his game since the Kings chose the 6-foot-5 forward No. 2 overall in the 2020 NHL draft.
Yet his goal came during what essentially was garbage time and the Kings got no closer in a 6-3 loss that pushed them to within one loss of elimination from the Stanley Cup playoffs. Byfield’s first goal since he scored into an empty net March 14 and first with someone in net since Jan. 21 was overshadowed by their bleak circumstances.
It became a footnote. But it was more than that for a 20-year-old who had been playing wing instead of his natural center position and had to play against the likes of superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
“That goal wasn’t really important in the game, but it’s good for me just to know that I can score again, that I can look at the net and know I can beat the goaltender,” he said Friday, as the Kings ended an unusually long three-day break between games.
The Kings allowed the Oilers’ offense to take over during Game 5, and now L.A.’s season is at stake after a 6-3 loss Tuesday night in Edmonton.
Of course, Byfield’s scoring struggles aren’t the only reason the Oilers took a 3-2 series lead and can advance to the second round against the Vegas Golden Knights if they defeat the Kings at Crypto.com Arena on Saturday.
The Kings’ inability to contain the Oilers’ power play — Edmonton is eight for 14 with a man advantage — is the all-too-obvious reason the Kings’ high expectations for this season are in peril of collapsing. The Oilers are deeper, bigger. They’ve won the last two games, outscoring the Kings 11-4 after the Kings took a 3-0 lead in the first period of Game 4. They chased goalie Joonas Korpisalo in Game 5, scoring on four of 19 shots, most of them high-quality chances. Should the Kings win Saturday, the Oilers would host Game 7 on Monday at Rogers Place, where they shut out the Kings in Game 7 of their first-round series last year.
But if the Kings are to take this to the limit, Byfield must play a role in their pushback. Coach Todd McLellan has been carefully complimentary toward Byfield even as he scored merely three goals and had 22 points in 53 regular-season games. That reflects the organization’s patience and recognition he’s a gem who needs polishing. McLellan echoed that theme Friday.
“I want him to keep playing the game he’s been playing. He’s been one of our most tenacious forecheckers, he’s been one of our most physical players,” McLellan said. “And if he just keeps those qualities in his game, then he’ll be fine.”
At some point, though, the Kings will need Byfield to score goals. That point is now — for his sake and theirs, whether to prolong this season or establish a path for his success next season.
Zach Hyman scores in overtime as the Edmonton Oilers rally from a 3-0 deficit to defeat the Kings 5-4. The series is tied 2-2 as it heads back to Canada.
“It’s not an easy answer. It’s not a simple, ‘Now’s the time,’ or tomorrow or six weeks ago. There is no easy answer to that,” McLellan said. “Q scored the other day. There are others that are on the clock now, others that haven’t scored since Q scored. So now they’re on the clock.
“Q, or Quinton, where he was drafted and with the type of offensive expectations that came with that spot or that slot, takes a lot of pressure and you [media] ask me questions every day about Quinton Byfield. That’s just automatic. And earlier in his career, I had a tougher time answering because he wasn’t scoring but he didn’t bring a lot else to his game. He had to learn that. Now he’s bringing a lot. I have a lot easier time supporting and answering those questions, and I think the offense will come.”
With scrappy fourth-line center Blake Lizotte back at practice and a full lineup available, McLellan threw his line combinations into a blender. Among his moves was shifting Byfield away from the wing with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe and to a line with Vilardi and Kevin Fiala.
“It’s good to change things up. We’ve had two good practices knowing the new guys on our lines, so it’s been a lot of fun,” Byfield said. “There’s been a lot of energy around the room.”
That should help him click with his new linemates. “All offensive players,” Byfield said. “Me and Gabe played a bunch together in the AHL, so we know where we are, all over the ice. And then we started out the season together, me and [Vilardi], so there’s a lot there. Playing with Kev is super easy. He just wants the puck, so I just give it to him in space and he creates so much. I’m excited to play with these two guys.”
Trevor Moore’s winning goal for L.A. against Edmonton in overtime was especially sweet for the Thousand Oaks native who grew up watching Kings games.
It’s win or go home. It’s not a time to be timid, and that applies as much to Byfield individually as to the Kings as a team.
“Todd said, ‘Just swing the bat,’ so I think that’s what we’re going to do,” Byfield said. “I think when we were up 3-0 [in Game 4], we just sat back and let it come right to us, and that team is so good that if you let that happen it’s not going to end well.
“I just think we’re going to play not scared, with a lot of excitement and a lot of desperation, and I think we’re ready for it.”
If not, they can start getting ready for next season.
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