The LA Kings beat the San Jose Sharks Wednesday night in what was described by coach and players alike as a playoff atmosphere at the Staples Center.
The game went down to the end tied at 2-2, then through the most exciting overtime I can remember seeing, with the home team dominating completely and registering three shots but out-chancing the visitors and controlling the puck almost the entire five minutes. They didn’t score, but they won it in the fourth round of the subsequent shootout and completed the 3-2 victory.
In fact, of course, the game was not even close to a playoff contest for importance, its result merely closing the Kings to within a point of the Sharks, who vaulted to eighth in the West after getting their point after regulation.
The Kings now sit in a tie for 10th and trail Chicago, San Jose and Colorado (who lost 5-2 to Phoenix) by a point and are tied with Minnesota in the standings. But perhaps equally worthy of note is that they are a mere four points ahead of the 14th place team, St. Louis, who has lost three straight.
However, the game means far more than that, because it gives the Kings, now winners of three straight, momentum going into the break. They’ll need it as the next month progresses, because they don’t play at home again until February 24th. Such is the peril of sharing a building with two NBA teams, which host the All-Star game in February, as well as the stars who will show up hoping to be awarded a Grammy.
After the contest, the atmosphere in the dressing room felt like more than just a win had happened. It felt like maybe the team was getting back in the groove that they had lost over the month of January, when they dropped eight of thirteen to find themselves as low as 12th in their conference.
Several good things can be taken from the game. First, that the team can rally back from a deficit. LA got the first goal, in the second period, and then was caught flat-footed as the Sharks answered with two goals in 39 seconds. The first was a 3-on-1 which Ryane Clowe ended up keeping himself and firing past Jonathan Quick from the left side. It was a lovely wrister, but it beat Quick clean over the glove hand with no traffic. Shortly thereafter, the goalie mishandled a puck to the side of the net and saw the Sharks steal it with Devin Setoguchi getting his 10th of the year past Quick on the wrap around.
The Kings could have given up, but they didn’t. This provides the second lesson for LA: Their goalie can be shaky at times, but that shouldn’t matter to the other five players. They need to carry forward the attack.
In the third, they tied it when Rob Scuderi got lucky and held a puck in at the blueline, passing it into the center of the ice in the Sharks’ zone. It ended up on the stick of Alexei Ponikarovsky, who took a backhand, had it hit someone, then shot it again and saw it go in from his knees.
The scoring on this team is still in need of the first line to get going (compiled of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Andre Loktionov right now), but getting goals from the depth guys — Ponikarovsky played on a line with Brad Richardson and Michal Handzus — will be helpful until the stars find their game again. That is lesson number three.
A fourth important lesson for the team came late, when Richardson took a four-minute high sticking minor. The Kings could have given up, assuming that at some point, the Sharks would capitalize. They didn’t, and the momentum LA got from the big kill is what put them on the attack for the balance of the game.
“You’ve got to be on your toes for four minutes,” said defenseman Jack Johnson about killing Richardson’s double minor. “The goalie also has to be the best penalty killer. He was great.”
Early on, the San Jose power play was disorganized, with, for instance, Dany Heatley losing the puck at the blueline. With two of the four minutes left, the Sharks had a good shift which yielded two shots and good puck movement. Then Heatley got a puck in the slot and was about to fire a wrister that likely would have eluded Quick when Michal Handzus came from behind him and put a stick check on that freed up the puck.
Shortly after that, with Scuderi hindered by the lack of a right glove, Kopitar cleared a puck from his knees. His coach afterwards signalled that out as one of the game’s key moments. The Sharks got two more shots on the PP, but they never really looked frightening. Meanwhile, LA dominated.
They carried this over into OT, with Handzus setting up Richardson for a one-timer from the slot. Only a shoulder save by Antti Niemi kept the puck out. Ryan Smyth later took a puck in from the blueline and tried to jam it, only to see it saved.
The one chance San Jose had, Setoguchi got into the slot with the puck, but Alec Martinez got back for the Kings. Shortly after, Justin Williams had a great chance off a feed from Jarret Stoll, but his shot went wide. Smyth then had one last chance, on which Niemi made a leg save.
After that kind of great action, the shootout, though it went to four rounds, was somewhat anticlimactic. Each goaltender made a save, a couple of Kings’ chances hit the post, and Stoll put one over Niemi’s glove to complete the victory.