Gabe Vilardi is finding his game with Kings

Like a superhero or a prime suspect, the Kings have faced persistent questions about their identity.

Those queries have intensified as their play has varied not only from season to season but game to game. Last year’s scrappy bunch that prevailed in a slew of one-goal contests became this year’s high-octane, higher-risk scoring machine. That shift produced a 7-6 final in Minnesota last month, but when the Kings welcomed the Wild on Tuesday, the two sides produced a 1-0 affair with a solitary goal scored with six minutes to play.

That effort was lauded by some players, including defenseman Matt Roy, as getting back to what the Kings did effectively to qualify for the playoffs last season ahead of a matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks Thursday.

Yet in a room filled with team-first cliches that features three two-time Stanley Cup winners in their 30s, two younger Kings forwards have gone a long way in setting the tone for this year’s roster.

First, Gabe Vilardi, who scored the winning goal Tuesday, has been a revelation for the Kings. The 2017 first-rounder was considered a potential steal at 11th overall, but back issues robbed him of development time. When the Kings accelerated their youth movement in 2021, he was thrust into a second-line center role with mostly unfavorable results. He receded from the fore last season, spending much of the year in the minors converting from center to wing, before signing a one-year deal over the summer.

Now, he’s been the Kings’ go-to option offensively, scoring frequently and in key moments.

“He’s been a good player since he came here, you know, tons of talent. When you’re young, trying to find your way in the league, it’s not easy. He’s worked through some tough patches,” said goalie Jonathan Quick, who posted a shutout Tuesday. “To see how well he’s playing, I’m happy for him. I know how much work he’s put in and how dedicated he is to the game.”

Vilardi began the year on the third line but now has moved up with Anze Kopitar and Adrian Kempe. Coach Todd McLellan said his commitment to defense, his size and his ability to revive plays made him an excellent fit for the top trio, and that his production was timely since Kempe’s numbers have been tepid of late. Kempe has one point, an assist, in his last five games.

Center Phillip Danault also appreciated both where Vilardi has positioned himself and the arduous path it took for him to reach this point.

“He’s got an awesome stick, he’s good on the power play and his puck protection has been outstanding,” said Danault, last year’s bust-out performer for the Kings. “He’s found his game. It’s not easy in this league to find your game, but once you find it, it’s hard to lose.”

While Vilardi has ignited the Kings offensively, the bottom-six forward group continues to be spurred by 24-year-old center Blake Lizotte. Listed, perhaps generously, at 5’9” and 170 pounds, Lizotte has been an enormous contributor to the doggedness of the Kings. McLellan said that while Lizotte’s competitiveness was transparent, its effect on the rest of the group was also palpable.

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“It can energize the rest of the team as well,” McLellan said. “If he can get it done and get involved, be that aggressive and that hungry, there’s no reason why somebody that’s 50 pounds heavier and maybe even has a better skillset can’t be that. He does drive our team; we’re lucky to have him.”

Vilardi, Lizotte and the Kings will host the Blackhawks Thursday, with a Nov. 3 overtime loss in Chicago fresh in the Kings’ minds. That was a game where the Kings were able to find their checking vigor but not the extra offensive oomph they needed to come away with two points as Chicago prevailed 2-1.

Jonathan Toews potted the game-winner in that meeting, and he trails only longtime partner in crime Patrick Kane among Chicago’s scorers. Winger Andreas Athanasiou joined Chicago after two seasons as a King. He has six points in 12 games thus far, including an early goal of the year candidate.

Chicago at Kings

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday

Where: Arena

TV/Radio: ESPN+; Hulu/IHeartRadio (English); Tu Liga 1330 (Spanish)

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