LOS ANGELES (AP)The Los Angeles Kings all came to work wearing Kobe Bryant’s jersey. Two stalls in their dressing room held a uniform and a nameplate for the former Lakers superstar.
When the puck dropped on the first sporting event at Staples Center since Bryant’s death, the Tampa Bay Lightning proudly joined their opponents in wearing helmet stickers with ”Kobe” and ”Gigi” superimposed on a gold heart.
A painful week in Los Angeles continued with two hockey teams paying heartfelt tributes to an athlete who inspired reverence and awe that crossed all borders. Even those between sports.
Steven Stamkos had two goals and an assist, and Eric Cernak scored the tiebreaking goal early in the third period of the Lightning’s 4-2 victory over the Kings on Wednesday night.
Staples Center held a somber pregame ceremony honoring Bryant and the other eight victims of Sunday’s helicopter crash. Bryant’s two retired jersey numbers hang high on the walls of the building, which was his home for the final 17 years of his two-decade career.
”It certainly wasn’t easy,” Kings captain Anze Kopitar said of the ceremony. ”Even though you know it’s coming, you still get choked up, obviously. The stature of Kobe, not just in this building, but literally all over the world, it’s going to sting for a while. … We’re trying to obviously show appreciation and respect to Mamba before the game, and that’s about it. You still get choked up, really. At least I did.”
Both teams wore the gold stickers honoring Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, who also perished in the crash. While the Kings all wore Bryant’s jersey before the game, the Lightning donned purple T-shirts featuring the same logo on the helmet stickers.
”Just to walk down here to Staples Center before the game and, gosh, the love that’s shown for him outside the arena,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper said. ”It just gives you time to reflect and sit there and understand how much he meant to this city. … It was a weird first couple of minutes of the game, because there was just no emotion on either side. Once some bodies got banged, it turned into a hockey game, but like I said, a very well-done and tasteful tribute.”
After the Lightning rallied from a two-goal deficit in the second period, Cernak got his fourth goal of the season with a long, possibly deflected shot through traffic off passes from Stamkos and reigning NHL MVP Nikita Kucherov, who both extended their scoring streaks to five games.
Stamkos was asked about his favorite memory of Bryant’s career, and he quickly mentioned Kobe’s 81-point performance against his beloved Toronto Raptors in 2006.
”When I first heard the news, I hadn’t had that feeling before,” Stamkos said. ”Just kind of in shock, that it wasn’t really, really real. … So in a way, to be able to be here tonight when they honored him with the pregame, that was good on them and we’re glad obviously we got to be a part of it under those tough circumstances.”
Tyler Johnson also scored, Andrei Vasilevskiy made 32 saves and Stamkos added an empty-net goal in the final second of the Lightning’s first win in two games after their 10-day break.
”I’m from Sweden, obviously, and basketball is maybe not the biggest sport, but Kobe Bryant is still someone that everybody knows,” Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman said. ”Doesn’t matter if you’re a hockey player or a soccer player back home. All my friends, family, everyone knows who Kobe is. … It was an honor for us as an organization to be a part of that pregame ceremony.”
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty missed his first game since April 12, 2014, ending the longest consecutive games streak in franchise history. The star blueliner had played in 460 straight games, but an undisclosed injury prevented him from suiting up even after a lengthy break since the Kings’ last game.
Tyler Toffoli and Alex Iafallo scored for Los Angeles. Jonathan Quick stopped 20 shots while the last-place Kings lost their fifth straight in their return from an 11-day gap between games.
Los Angeles has won one game in January while falling to the bottom of the Western Conference.
”We’ve just got to keep plugging away,” Kings coach Todd McLellan said. ”I sound like a broken record … but we have no choice but to plod on and try and fix this. And in my opinion, we’re doing a pretty good job of it. (But) we’re not winning games, and that’s certainly what the goal of the event is.”
NOTES: Former Kings D Luke Schenn was a scratch for Tampa Bay. He hasn’t played in a game for the Lightning since Dec. 31. … Los Angeles D Derek Forbort also was scratched. He missed practice Monday with the same back injury that forced him to miss the first 43 games of the season. … Doughty ranks second among NHL skaters in minutes played per game (26:03).
Lightning: Visit the Anaheim Ducks on Friday night.
Kings: Visit the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday night.
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