His posture was so familiar. The uniform, not so much.
As the national anthem played Saturday before the Kings and New York Rangers faced off at Crypto.com Arena, Jonathan Quick stood, bent over, his body angled toward the row of seven retired Kings jerseys displayed at one end of the ice.
Someday, a version of the No. 32 he wore for parts of 16 Kings seasons will join that group. He has earned his own row, really, for being the backbone of their two Stanley Cup championships, the most valuable player in their surprising 2012 success, and for taking emphatic ownership of just about every significant franchise goaltending record.
His first game in Los Angeles since general manager Rob Blake traded him last March to Columbus — which mercifully flipped him to Vegas for another Cup triumph — brought back memories of those good, old days. That era has lately seemed especially long ago and far away, obscured by a slump the Kings interrupted Saturday with a 2-1 victory over the Rangers, only their second win in their last 12 games.
Usually stoic on the ice unless he’s jabbing crease-crashing opponents, Quick appeared to have tears in his eyes when a video tribute to him played on the scoreboard during a break in the first period. Fans awarded him a standing ovation. He waved one hand toward the stands and then the other, then brought his gloved hands together to return the applause.
Later, still stung by the loss, Quick insisted the tribute didn’t make him particularly emotional. “They play videos all the time. It’s just another video,” he said after his 24-save performance.
In the same vein, he said returning to the site of his biggest successes didn’t feel strange. “No, it’s a hockey game. Road game,” he said. “Trying to get two points. Came a little short.”
Although he wouldn’t acknowledge feeling sentimental, the Kings did.
“Obviously that ceremony and that acknowledgment was really important for a lot of people in that locker room over there,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said of his players. “It felt really strange because he’s on the other team but it was emotional for a lot of our guys and very deserving.”
Kings goalie David Rittich, whose left toenail save on Alexis Lafrenière during a six-on-four Rangers advantage in the final minute of the game was the best of his 22 stops, felt the magnitude of the occasion.
“He’s a legend for the Kings obviously and for Team USA,” Rittich said of Quick, who played in the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. “It’s always a great battle to play against those guys who are really good and also having great careers so far. The tribute video was awesome for him and he deserves even more.”
Quick had wanted to finish his career as a King but was denied that when Blake, seeing Quick’s undeniable struggles last season, traded him for a supposed upgrade in Joonas Korpisalo, as well as rugged defenseman Vladislav Gavrikov. Rumors of the trade became public before Blake could tell Quick in person, leaving Blake to inform him by phone. That angered Quick and many other players. Rightfully so. Blake owed him better than that.
But Quick had the last laugh when he got his name on the Cup again — and he might get another chuckle or three. Korpisalo left the Kings as a free agent last summer after their second straight first-round playoff exit. Quick, now 38, is playing well enough to make contenders of the Rangers, the team he followed as a kid in Connecticut.
“I’m enjoying it. I’m enjoying these guys,” he said. “From management, coaching staff, trainers, players, they’re all great to be part of.”
No matter who was in the opposing net, the victory was important for the Kings (22-12-8), who vaulted past Nashville to sit in the first West wild-card spot.
McLellan made major changes up front, moving Pierre-Luc Dubois from centering the third line to playing left wing on the top line, and moving Quinton Byfield from wing to center between Alex Laferriere and Jaret Anderson-Dolan. The new Byfield line produced the decisive goal, at 18:13 of the second period, when Byfield converted the rebound of a nifty backhander by Anderson-Dolan.
“We had to win like that,” McLellan said. “At 7-6 we’d all be saying, ‘Great, the offense is back,’ but that’s not who we are. We’re a 2-1, 3-2 team.”
It’s also noteworthy that in a league where coaches guard information about the starting goalie more carefully than they protect their cash machine PIN numbers, McLellan said Rittich would start again Monday. That would be Rittich’s third start in four games over All-Star selection Cam Talbot.
“Right now Ritter’s had a hot hand and we’ll play him. No sense beating around the bush or trying to be coy,” McLellan said. “The saves he made, he deserves to go again.”
One loss didn’t push the Kings into this tailspin of 10 losses in 12 games. One win doesn’t mean their problems are over. They’re still merely 8-8-5 at home, with home games against San José and Buffalo coming up before a trip that will take them into the All-Star break.
But on a night when they stirred memories of better years, they had a good day. A winning day, and McLellan demurred when asked what it meant that they’d scored only two goals. “We’ll enjoy the evening. [Sunday] we’ll get up and we’ll watch a football game,” he said. “Ask me on Monday. A win’s a win right now.”
There haven’t been enough of those yet this season.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.