Kings Clinch, Stay Alive for Fourth

The Kings didn’t just clinch a playoff spot Wednesday night. They kept alive the hope that they might end up fourth in the West. After the game, several players and Coach Terry Murray mentioned this goal.

What the win means is that the back-to-back games the Kings play against the Ducks on the weekend matter, a lot, because they will be for position.

After a lacklustre game against the Sharks Monday night in San Jose, the Kings needed new life. In his press conference on Tuesday that he needed to look for something, maybe a quick change.

The solution was to make one adjustment on the forward lines and a couple of shifts around on defense.

The first change worked like magic. The second one didn’t make it out of Tuesday’s practice, but it maybe should have.

First, the forwards. Wingers Dustin Brown and Oscar Moller swapped spots, so that one of the top two forward lines was Brown, Stoll, and Ryan Smyth; the other was Oscar Moller with Michal Handzus and Dustin Penner.

In the first period with Phoenix in town, Brown took a puck all the way down the ice on the right side, deked a couple of guys, did his patented pull and drag inside-out move, and shoved the puck across the crease.  toll, trailing but going hard to the net, got there to poke it home to give the Kings the 1-0 lead.

“I was yelling at him to shoot it. I knew I was going to the net, and hoping to get a rebound, but, I just drove the left post,” Stoll said of the goal. “He did most of it. Nice play by our captain.”

Then things fell to pieces defensively. The Kings stood and watched while the Coyotes scored two goals. Funny enough, it was the same two defensemen on the ice for both, Jack Johnson and Willie Mitchell. The forwards were different each time, with the first line that was beaten the Stoll unit and the second the fourth line of Kevin Westgarth, Trevor Lewis, and Alexi Ponikarovsky.

On the first goal, Phoenix sent two men deep and the puck was fired out to the front of the net quickly. Lee Stempniak shot it past a startled Jonathan Quick, who came out with his legs down but had no chance. The second goal came just four minutes later, when Taylor Pyatt buried a rebound past Quick. Both of the goals were scored by the same line, with Vernon Fiddler also figuring in with the second assist on both.

Where was the defense? Reaching and straining, but with no bodies on men and no separation of people from the puck. Was it coincidental that the same guys were out there on the Kings D and the Phoenix forward combos?  Maybe. But that doesn’t mean that other Kings’ players were taking up the slack.

Actually, that’s not right. There was effort, but there’s just not enough of the kind of special talent on this team to allow them to deal easily with a determined opponent. Sure, the Stoll line worked hard, Smyth and Brown providing the hits and the net presence. But Stoll doesn’t have a shot that turns chances from the outside into goals. He’s great on draws, but pencil him in as a classic third-line center on an offensive team and you’ve got it about right.

The other top line (Moller, Handzus, and Penner) suffers from, again, a center who is more defensive than offensive, plus a young, small guy who hasn’t yet proved his place in the league (Moller) and a guy (Penner) who the coach is not terribly happy with right now.  He hasn’t learned the system well enough yet, Murray said to reporters earlier in the week. You can read one take on the issue from longtime LA writer Gann Mastuda over at frozenroyalty.net.

But back to Wednesday night, and what hasn’t been discussed yet is the third line of Wayne Simmonds, Kyle Clifford, and Brad Richardson. Gritty, all of these guys. In fact, Clifford is often the enforcer when Westgarth is not in the lineup. And their goal was just that, too. Simmonds took the puck a the righ wall from Rob Scuderi, fought past the Keith Yandle, and moved it to the hash marks, then fired a pass off diagonally to the front of the net. Meanwhile, Clifford had checked Michal Rozsival the LA bench. He chased Clifford to the net, but without lumber couldn’t do anything to interject himself into what the Kings’ player was doing. And that was redirecting the puck into the net as he crashed in on ‘Yotes goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov.

“You’re getting a glimpse of the future there. That was a great goal,” Murray said about Clifford’s goal. “That was a young, 19 year-old, kid, that’s showing you how to play a power game that is going to make him a real successful player on this team for a long time. That’s a hard play, with a lot of courage.”

So the period ended 2-2.

By the way, shortly before the goal, the Kings had had a power play, which failed. That shouldn’t come as a surprise because the team is 20th in the league in that category at 16.6 percent. Coming into the night, LA hadn’t scored a PP goal since March 26th and was one for 12, but worse when you look back further. They had one (in three chances) against Colorado and two in five tries against San Jose in the game before that, but prior to that, they were 0-12 and 1-15.  So add that up, and since before the middle of March, they are 4-32 (good for a 12.5 percent conversion rate).

Does that matter when the team goes into the third period in a more-or-less must-win game tied, 2-2? Not like it will matter in the playoffs. Fans will remember that whatever success they had against the Canucks last year in the post-season was due to a magical power play that scored time and again. Without that, it might have been worse than the 4-2 series loss it ended up being.

The final stanza saw the Kings carry the play to Phoenix, slowly taking over the shots on goal stat. The frame began 22-21 for Phoenix. By midway through, it was 28-24 for LA. By seven minutes to go, it was 29-28 LA. With three and a half, 30-29 LA. There weren’t many great chances on either side, which meant that there wasn’t spectacular saves were made by either goalie.

The game ended regulation time with the shots at 33 Kings, 31 Phoenix. The Kings needed a win to clinch a playoff spot. Otherwise, it would go down to the weekend and the home-and-home games against the Ducks, starting Friday in Anaheim. That team is flying, with Corey Perry having scored his 50th goal on a hat trick earlier in the evening, so the prospects of going into Anaheim and taking a win, and maybe even of getting one in LA Saturday, would appear to be nowhere near assured.

Overtime yielded no goals, and an effort that Stoll described by saying that the team had gone “a little bit lackadaisical. I don’t know what that was.” But the shootout, where Quick almost never loses, got the Kings the win. This was due to two glove-side goals on Bryzgalov and a third shot that hit the post on that side.  Meanwhile, Quick yielded just once.

“We can breathe out, but we’ve got two big games ahead of us,” Murray said about the win. “Anaheim is playing very well. We want to keep going and get that home ice advantage.”

Stoll added, “The last two games are a big test, getting our game where we want it to be for the playoffs, and if we do that, we’ll probably have home ice because of it.”

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