Kevin Fiala’s shortcomings were painfully obvious early this season.
The risky passes that became costly giveaways. His lack of defensive awareness on a team built around two-way play. His production of one goal in his first 12 games while trying to force some kind of chemistry with center Pierre-Luc Dubois.
Less obvious was the effort the Kings’ skillful winger made to correct those problems.
Fiala invited his skills coach and longtime friend, Andreas Larsson, to Southern California to help lift him out of what was threatening to become a deep rut. Larsson didn’t have to deliver a magic formula or reinvent the wheel — or in this case, the puck.
Mixing the lines to put Fiala alongside Phillip Danault and Thousand Oaks native Trevor Moore certainly accelerated his resurgence. But so did the work Fiala did behind the scenes, a star who didn’t mind stepping outside the spotlight to put himself through solo practice sessions long after his teammates had finished their drills and gone home.
“He knows me in and out. Not just on the ice, what I do, but personally. He helped me off the ice a lot,” Fiala said of Larsson. “On the ice, we did some extra work after some practices. We came back to the rink and went on the ice for another hour and just worked on some things that I need to do better and [what] my strengths are, so I need to kind of know what it is again. Back to basics, kind of.”
That paid off Friday for Fiala, who scored twice to record his first multigoal game this season and fuel the Kings’ 5-2 victory over the Ducks in a Black Friday matinee at Honda Center. The refresher course on the basics gave him the foundation to be his old, effective self against the Ducks, who have lost five straight after a surprisingly good start.
“Just work hard and shoot the puck more. Go to the net more. All of those small details–just doing more,” Fiala said of the recent improvement in his game. “Also just driving the puck. I want the puck more. All of that stuff, I feel that I did a better job lately, so it’s nice.”
After his initial struggles, Fiala has scored five goals in his last six games. His performance Friday helped the Kings extend their winning streak to four and improve to 9-0-0 on the road, though the always large number of Kings fans in the stands made it feel like another Kings home game.
“When Kev’s going, we’re all going,” said forward Quinton Byfield, who redirected a long shot by Vladislav Gavrikov past Ducks goaltender John Gibson for a 3-0 Kings lead early in the second period.
“It was a slow start by his standards, but we know Kev. He’s playing back at what he usually does,” Byfield added. “That’s a huge boost for us, and he’s always great out there.”
Fiala certainly is more engaged and enthused. “He’s got a lot of energy in his game right now. When that happens, he’s got the puck on his tape, he’s making plays, looks really confident,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “I see an energized number 22 right now. He’s having a lot of fun.”
The Kings, who traveled to Anaheim by bus Friday morning, didn’t mind the early start, a good sign given they’ll face Montreal in a Saturday matinee at Crypto.com Arena. A rollicking first period, enlivened by the back-and-forth cheers of Kings and Ducks fans, ended with the Kings leading 2-0 on a pair of power-play goals.
“We didn’t eat too much turkey, I guess, [Thursday],” Fiala said. “We were ready from the start.”
A sloppy change left the Ducks with too many men on the ice nearly midway through the period, and they paid for their mistake when Fiala, shooting from a deep angle on the left side after the puck had caromed off the end boards, slipped a shot past Gibson at 10:25.
An interference penalty against Ducks defenseman Radko Gudas gave the Kings a man advantage at 11:20, and they struck again. Winger Arthur Kaliyev, moved to the fourth line Friday with Trevor Lewis and Jaret Anderson-Dolan, played only four shifts in the opening period but made his time count. His shot from the right circle snaked through traffic and past Gibson at 12:26, his fourth goal this season.
“We capitalized on the first two power plays. We knew they had a tendency to take some penalties and wanted to be prepared to do that and that was, I think, powerful for our group to get rolling there,” said McLellan, who made some changes to the team’s power-play zone entries during previous practices.
Ducks coach Greg Cronin, whose team has been outscored 22-9 during its losing streak, bemoaned the loss of momentum caused by the too-many-men penalty, the first of two his team committed Friday.
“It was a good game going back and forth, energetic crowd. The first one it’s just, too many men on the ice, guy jumped on the ice, and it puts us down, and they score,” Cronin said. “It’s just bad decisions. It’s on us as coaches, and what looked like a pretty clean, even period turned sideways on the next two power plays for them.”
Byfield extended the Kings’ lead to 3-0 at 1:17 of the second period, and Fiala made it 4-0 at 2:56 when he made a clever deke and sliced through the slot alone. “We got out to an early lead, and just being able to maintain that, that’s what good teams do,” Byfield said.
The Ducks got one back at 12:42 of the second period, on a long blast by Gudas that got past Cam Talbot, but the Kings embarrassed the Ducks’ defense to extend their lead to 5-1 early in the third period on a play Anze Kopitar finished off by shooting while on one knee. Combined with his assist on Fiala’s first goal, Kopitar has 87 career points against the Ducks in 87 games. Ducks forward Alex Killorn finished the scoring with a power-play goal at 11:24 of the third period.
It was a strong showing for the Kings, who are 8-1-1 in their last 10 games. Their best might be still to come if Fiala — the only King who averaged more than a point a game last season with 72 in 69 games — can remember his skills coach’s reminders about the great importance of the basics.
“He means a lot to me,” Fiala said. “He did a great job for 10 years and now it’s even better and better, so I’m very grateful for him.”
An appropriate sentiment on the day after Thanksgiving. Or any day at all.