As Boxing Day brought the holiday tradition of the World Junior Championship to Canada Monday, the Kings were preparing to get back to business and welcome the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday.
They rolled into the break on a five-game points streak, albeit one they’d have preferred was a five-game win streak after a shootout loss in Arizona on Friday. “Gas tanks were running low” in their third game in four nights, said Coach Todd McLellan, who viewed the performance optimistically.
Jonathan Quick returned to the net for the first time since Dec. 11, interrupting a career-long string of five straight starts for Pheonix Copley, who had been the Kings’ third-string goalie less than a month earlier.
“Our group owed Quickie a good, honest effort, a checking effort, an effort with a conscience, and I thought we got that,” McLellan said. “In return, I thought he paid back the guys with some pretty big and timely saves.”
An even longer-awaited return was that of winger Brendan Lemieux, who had been out since Nov. 12 with a lower-body injury. His former linemate, Arthur Kaliyev, missed the game with a lower-body injury of his own and was seen in a walking boot after the Kings’ most recent home game Thursday.
While the veterans recuperated and the Golden Knights awaited, three young members of the Kings’ organization were in action at the World Junior Championship north of the border. This year’s tournament is split between Moncton and Halifax, and the Kings have a modest number of representatives at the event who are playing for some of its prominent national selections.
Defenseman Brandt Clarke, who was passed over repeatedly by Hockey Canada across the past two seasons, was able to take advantage of his final year of eligibility and compete for the host nation. Clarke has played sparingly for both the Kings and their top-minor league affiliate, the Ontario Reign, but the focus has been on his inclusion in the tourney since he completed a conditioning assignment with the Reign on Nov. 26. Clarke was a top-10 pick in the 2021 draft, one of three such Kings selections who have been forging their paths with the franchise.
Forward Kenny Connors, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and 2022 fourth-rounder, skated for Team USA. Connors, who hails from suburban Philadelphia, is participating in a major tournament for the first time for the stars and stripes. He has scored over a point per game at the NCAA level, where he’s also shown positional versatility and a solid defensive acumen.
Defenseman Otto Salin rounds out the group as the youngest Kings prospect competing for his country, Finland, which has medaled in three of the past four tournaments and won three gold medals in the past eight. Salin is a right-shooting defenseman with outstanding mobility who competes for HIFK of Finland’s top pro league, where he’s held his own against professional competition.
The senior group of Kings will face the Golden Knights for the second of four meetings this season and the first since opening night on Oct. 11. Vegas won that game 4-3 and the team’s success has persisted: they have the top record in the Western Conference and best goal differential in the Pacific Division.
Vegas winger Phil Kessel set the record for most consecutive games played earlier this year and his durable ways seem to have rubbed off on the rest of the roster, which sustained numerous injuries last year. Though center Jack Eichel and defenseman Alex Pietrangelo have missed a handful of games, they’ve been productive with a combined 55 points in 54 games. Center Chandler Stephenson leads Vegas with 36 points in as many games. In goal, Robin Lehner’s season-long absence has been eased by the emergence of Logan Thompson. The rookie ranks in the top 10 in wins, goals-against average and save percentage, establishing himself among the Calder Trophy favorites.
VEGAS AT KINGS
When: Tuesday, 7: 30 p.m.
Where: Crypto.com Arena
TV/Radio: Bally Sports West/iHeart Radio