In any other game, it would have been a meaningless statistic-padding goal, another marker at the end of a blowout.
But goal No.428 for Ilya Kovalchuk carried a brickhouse full of meaning, and one could tell from the way his teammates celebrated with him and from the smile on his face afterward.
Kovalchuk clearly relished scoring a goal in his return to Prudential Center, after he was booed loudly every time he touched the puck Tuesday night against his former team, the New Jersey Devils. His third-period strike was the cherry on a 5-1 win by the Kings and a parting shot from the 35-year-old.
“I was actually happy that I score,” Kovalchuk said. “That’s the best answer.”
It was Kovalchuk’s only shot on goal, with fewer than three minutes remaining, facilitated by a steal from Anze Kopitar that Kovalchuk easily swiped into the net. Many of the announced crowd of 14,508 fans had already left following two goals by Tyler Toffoli in a 35-second span at the start of the third period and another by Dion Phaneuf 45 seconds later that put the game away. But the Kings gave Kovalchuk’s some extra taps and hugs when his moment arrived.
“Like I said, we care about each other here,” Kovalchuk said. “That’s the most important thing. I know the guys talked to me before game, I just tried to focus because I know it’s going to be different emotions but I tried to do my thing.”
The hatred stems from Kovalchuk’s decision to retire from the NHL and play in Russia, reportedly for money and family reasons in the wake of the 2012-13 lockout. He had signed a 15-year, $100-million contract that was later terminated by New Jersey.
All that baggage was aired out inside Prudential Center.
“I think he knew he was going to get a really good reception, or the one he got,” Toffoli said. “I don’t think he really cared too much. He went out there and played his game and had his shots, had his chances. For him to put that in at the end of the game was a lot of fun for all of us.”
Toffoli and Adrian Kempe continued to operate on a newly discovered gear. The two combined for two goals in 18 games from Dec.11 to the start of this trip, but they have six goals in the past two games.
Toffoli scored on the power play 32 seconds into the third period, then on a pass from Michael Amadio on a rush at 67 seconds. Kempe hammered Carl Hagelin’s pass from the high slot in the first period after Hagelin maneuvered into position on the left side.
Phaneuf scored his first goal since Feb.20, 2018, a span of 68 games, on a blast from up top, off a Devils player. The five goals scored on Devils goalie Keith Kinkaid were more than Kinkaid had given up in five previous games against the Kings combined. Toffoli said they didn’t really figure him out though.
“Just keep shooting,” Toffoli said. “That’s my motto.”
Jack Campbell made 29 saves in his first start since Jan.17. He checked off another new building for his NHL career by playing in Prudential Center, and it’s not one he’ll forget soon.
“It’s pretty cool to experience that,” Campbell said. “I can’t believe guys boo Kovy, just because he’s the nicest guy in the world. To see the game he had, takes a lot of mental toughness, just shows his character. We all love him, so happy that he was able to score and most importantly, we won the game, so I know he’s most happy about that.”
The Kings will need Toffoli and Kempe and others without Jeff Carter available, at least in the short-term, because of a lower-body injury. Coach Willie Desjardins said before the game he was hopeful for Carter to play later on the trip, and general manager Rob Blake said in an email that he doesn’t think that Carter is a week-to-week situation.