The game started out with the beaming smile from a 35-year-old who celebrated his 418th career goal like it was his first.
Ilya Kovalchuk’s face lit up as Drew Doughty and teammates joined him in the corner for Kovalchuk’s first goal with the Kings and first in the NHL since 2013. It could not have been much prettier: a backhand redirect of a patient pass by Doughty near the boards.
A couple of hours later Tuesday, Kovalchuk sat glumly at this locker stall after a 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets at Bell MTS Place. The Kings were completely outplayed in the second period and could not make up the difference in the third even though goalie Jack Campbell kept them in it with another clutch performance in this building.
Kovalchuk, the Jets’ all-time franchise scoring leader from his career as an Atlanta Thrasher, tossed nostalgia in the trash bin when asked about his score.
“I prefer to win than score goals,” Kovalchuk said. “It wasn’t enough, so we’ll be better next game.”
The Kings were frustrated after they were outshot 39-17, due mostly to a second period played mostly in their end.
“To be quite honest, I think we took a step back tonight from what we were trying to do and what we’re all about,” Anze Kopitar said.
“Obviously ‘Soupy’ [Campbell] played fantastic. He played out of his mind. We obviously didn’t give him support. The third was really our best period and it’s what we need to do to be successful against contenders, the top part of the league, or anybody for that matter. If we play like [we did in the second], we’re going to lose more often than not.”
Campbell got the Kings one point in a gutty overtime loss here late last season. He stopped 37 shots this time, and one of the goals allowed was on a Jets power play.
Winnipeg rammed its big-and-fast style down the Kings’ throats for a 19-5 shot advantage in the second period. It set up in the Kings’ zone regularly, and that was before it got back-to-back power plays that resulted in Kyle Connor’s poke-in goal when Blake Wheeler slipped him the puck in the crease.
Winnipeg’s first goal by Mark Scheifele got the arena buzzing again in the home opener, and the Jets were on their way.
Kings coach John Stevens emphasized puck management through center ice before the game, and he didn’t see any positives at how they handled that.
“Did you see a step forward today? I didn’t,” Stevens said. “I thought we played the game on our heels. You can’t manage the puck if you’re on your heels.”
The Kings countered Winnipeg in the third period and had a six-on-four advantage in the final 90 seconds, but couldn’t get a decent look with Doughty and Dion Phaneuf at the points.
Phaneuf’s edge appeared to cross the line earlier in the game with an apparent spear on Adam Lowry. Generally speaking, Phaneuf’s snarl and his shot mentality are what the Kings like, and that’s why Stevens has him on the first-unit power play.
“He thinks about shooting the puck all the time,” Stevens said. “His first thought is about getting the puck on net. That’s kind of why we put him there … it’s a philosophy we need to exude on everyone.”