The Kings entered Thursday night’s game with the Florida Panthers knowing they had just 60 minutes of hockey and a cross-country flight between them and their longest break of the season.
Win, and they’d sleep soundly for a week. But lose on Thursday and the mini-vacation could be clouded with doubt.
“Obviously, we knew that we had to win,” goalie Peter Budaj said with a smile. “It was a huge game.”
So the Kings responded with a huge effort, with Jeff Carter scoring two goals and assisting on two others and Tanner Pearson scoring once and assisting twice in a 6-3 rout.
That’s one goal for each day the Kings have off during their league-mandated bye week, a scheduling wrinkle the NHL added this season to win the players’ support for changes in the All-Star game format. It’s also six more goals than the Kings scored in regulation on the first three games of their four-game East Coast swing and the most they’ve scored in a single game since early November.
“It’s nice. We don’t get it too often,” Carter said of the offensive outburst. “We’re typically a pretty low-scoring, tight-checking team, so it’s nice to see the guys get rewarded.”
Dustin Brown, Tyler Toffoli and Dwight King also tallied for the Kings while Budaj, burned for nine goals in his last five periods, had a comfortable, confidence-restoring night in goal, stopping 36 shots. That helped the Kings leapfrog over Calgary in the battle for the second Western Conference wild-card spot.
“Obviously, the last two games didn’t go really as planned,” Pearson said. “One of our goals before this break was to be in a playoff spot, and we accomplished that.”
Brown got the rout started with a power-play goal less than two minutes after the opening faceoff, ricocheting a shot from behind the goal line off James Reimer’s stick and into the net. It was the Kings’ first goal in more than 121 minutes.
It was far from their last.
Carter doubled the lead 6 1/2 minutes later, collecting a feed from Pearson and blasting a one-timer past goalie Reimer at the near post. TThe Kings center’s next goal gave him 29 on the season, one behind Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, the league leader.
Coach Darryl Sutter shook up his lines before the game, dropping Brown to the second line and pairing Anze Kopitar with Toffoli and Andy Andreoff. The Panthers never managed to solve the new combinations, pulling starter Reimer midway through the first period, then sending him back to replace backup Roberto Luongo midway through the second.
“Not too much to it,” Sutter said of the line changes. “Put it in a hat, stir it up, you pull numbers. It’s what we came out with.”
The Panthers offered only brief murmurs of protest, with Jussi Jokinen briefly halving the lead by deflecting in a pass from Nick Bjugstad midway through the first period and Jonathan Marchessault and Aleksander Barkov scoring late in the third period after the outcome had long been decided.
And with that decision, the Kings ended a 19-day stretch that saw them play 10 games in seven states and the District of Columbia.
“We played nine out of 10 on the road and we came out 6-4,” Sutter said. “We’ll take that. It doesn’t matter if there’s a break or not. [But] the team needs a break. Deserves a break.”
After Thursday’s performance, they’ll be able to enjoy it too.