Kings Nearly Blew That One

LA Kings Coach Darryl Sutter wasn’t too angry with his prized center and penalty killer Anze Kopitar, who took a two-minute minor that put him in the box near the end of the game Monday against the Flames and cost the LA team at least a point for a regulation tie. How could he be? As he said, the player almost never takes a minor. In fact, this was Kopitar’s first one of the year. And he’s valuable on both ends of the ice.

Sutter’s not slow to criticize, mind you. A week or so ago, when Jonathan Quick made a dumb mistake and let in a goal from the other end of the ice after he dropped his stick, Sutter was asked whether it was fair that he’d been given a razzing by the fans. Sutter’s response? He needs to play the puck. He’s got no business trying to retrieve his stick in that situation. No mercy, like the bad sensei in the original Karate Kid movie.

In any event, to get back to Kopitar, he erased Monday’s mistake so early Thursday night that it felt like he was on singular mission to make things right. That is, before a minute had gone by, he went in on a power play and got off a low shot. It went into Phoenix goalie Mike Smith’s pads. There was a scrum near the net. The puck came out and Kopitar wheeled it across the slot and shot up high, over Smith and in. The time: 42 seconds. It was the first goal for him, and the first for any Kings’ center this season. You read that right. Four centers, ten games, no goals to this point. The power play, by the way, was charged to Antoine Vermette, holding at 21 seconds.

Kopitar was doing more damage almost as soon as the goal announcement was made. He smacked a puck off a faceoff, sending it to the boards. He got it back there, made a backhand, no-look pass out to Dwight King approaching the slot, and watched as King scored, his second goal of the year.

Phoenix’s unraveling continued as the first period wound through its early stages. They took another penalty with about six minutes gone, Derek Morris for interference. The Kings did nothing with it. In fact, the Coyotes started to press shorthanded and as Morris got out of the box. Their pressure, in the form if Martin Hanzal being in front of the LA net with the puck, turned the opportunity the other way. Willie Mitchell high-sticked the Czech in front of the net and was sent to the box for two minutes.

Didn’t matter. Jonathan Quick was playing way out of his cage, stopping pucks in traffic. And the Kings, right after the PP of Phoenix ended, went down on a two-on-one with Colin Fraser holding the puck on the left side of the ice and Jordan Nolan with him. Fraser shot, and the rebound came right to Nolan, who was skating hard to the net. He slammed it in, and with almost precisely ten minutes gone, the game was 3-0 for LA.

They made it four before the end of the period on another one by King, his third of the season. Last year, in ten NHL games, he got one goal. The year prior, he played 47 games with the big club and potted just four goals. This year, he has played in all eleven games. His career total, if you’re interested, is something short of 100 games and a dozen goals. King was a fourth-round pick in the 2007 entry draft. He’s a Saskatchewan boy.

What was going on that LA got so far ahead so fast? Perhaps this is too easy an analysis, but Smith did look odd at times in his positioning. When the puck is in front of the net but close to it, he gets down on his knees, crouching low to see what’s going on. As a result of this, he’s vulnerable up top, a fact that the Kings capitalized on. And thus the game ended. Only it didn’t. A period did. But Phoenix would form an answer in what followed.

Phoenix came back with four straight goals, though it took them until 2:50 gone in the third period to do that. They were playing in front of backup netminder Thomas Greiss, who probably happily sat on the bench, his record intact, while Smith let in the first four goals. Before the night was out, Smith was off the hook and Greiss was tagged with a loss. This because the Kings scored the final trio of goals in what turned out to be a 7-4 game.

The ironies abounded. The Kings center Mike Richards got his first goal, a lovely unassisted shorthand effort (his career number of those—28) that saw him steal a puck, break in on the left side of the zone, and deke the goalie. He then slid the puck just inside the post in the space between the skate and the pipe.

Dwight King got another goal to give him a hat trick. This came in the dying minute into an empty net. He got the puck, took it to the red line, and fired it home. After, he told IH that he was concerned first that he get to the line, and over it, to avoid an icing call. The goal was secondary, “and I don’t have the greatest luck shooting into those empty nets,” he said. He also indicated that there were two other chances where he’d almost put a puck in for the third of his goals, but that they’d been foiled by hitting other players.

It might be slightly ironic that a non-superstar would score the team’s first hat trick of the year. It’s moreso that despite doing so, he didn’t get the first star.

What’s a guy got to do to earn that distinction in this town? He must have been thinking it, but all he would say was that he was happy for his linemate, Kopitar, who did get the honor. This on the strength of a goal and two assists, mind you. But even Jarret Stoll, when told that this is what had happened, was surprised. He looked at the media members in front of him, who looked back and said, “It wasn’t us,” and he kind of smiled and shook his head, the whole thing a bit silly to him.

Coach Sutter was in rare form after, or perhaps not-so-rare form. He said that the team had actually had a pretty good second period (where it went from 4-0 to 4-2) and that the team wasn’t in need of drastic revisioning after letting a four-goal lead slip away. “They’re a good team that comes in here ahead of us in the standings,” he said, pointing over at Phoenix. Then he explained that his team had won a period, lost one and then won the third, and that that’s about what you need to do.

As he’s said many times, Sutter pointed out that when you let in three goals, you’re likely to lose, and when you score three, you’re likely to win. A simple formula, but true.

So what started out as an easy win turned into a bit of a nail-biter. What made it even more worthwhile was that Dwight King came to the forefront as the unlikely hero.

Kings Notes

Matt Frattin also got his first goal tonight.

King has had hat tricks at both Junior and AHL levels.

In the timeout Sutter called after the Coyotes tied the game, not much was said. King said they all just realized that they had to get back to their game.

Jordan Nolan came back into the lineup after a one-game hiatus, and he got a goal, the team’s third.

Follow me on twitter @growinguphockey, please.

Look for my new book, a novel called Pond Hockey.

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