The Kings got some help without even asking for it in the form of Boston beating Calgary Monday night. Wait. That was to be the headline, and when I headed upstairs to the Staples Center pressbox, the Bruins seemed to have the Flames well in hand, up 3-0 with little time left.
Then poof! The air went out of the arena when the crowd learned that the Calgary team had come back, way back, to take a 4-3 win. In the meantime, the Wild were losing to the Canucks, which kept Minnesota within a point of the Kings but also allowed the group from BC to edge up in the Pacific and make it necessary to get at least 67 points to even think about third in the Division.
But you know, the Lord helps those who help themselves (not in the bible, but something that sounds to a lot of people like it ought to be), and so the Kings had it in their hands to close the distance to the team directly ahead of them in the wildcard race, the Albertans.
Of course, it would have to be a win, whether regular time, OT, shootout, whatever. The extra point that Tampa Bay would have in any case meant nothing. The Kings could find themselves essentially in the playoffs, given that with a win, they would have 64 points, which tied them with Winnipeg if they won the three games they had in hand compared to the Jets and put them two points ahead of the Sharks if they won the two games they had in hand over them. It’s skinny logic, I know, but you’ve gotta start somewhere.
The real question, though, was how the Kings would match up against the Lightning. Would they contain Stamkos? Would they shut down the run-and-gun, playing within their system, which, to remind you yet one more time, was described by Jeff Carter last week using words approximating these: play well from below the puck; don’t cheat to gain offense.
The game loosened up in P2 after the Lightning got a lead about halfway through P1. Their goal came when two Kings’ D-men collapsed too far, Greene and Muzzin. With them right in front of the net, on their butts, Dwight King took a sweep at the puck and missed it, allowing Nikita Nesterov to score his first goal of the year.
The thing is, this kind of game—super loosey goosey—can work for LA, if their offensive stars act like offensive stars. On this night, a couple of them were. Dustin Brown burst in on the right hand side of the ice, taking the puck to the net though not scoring. Then, in a moment of pure brilliance, Trevor Lewis put a puck perfectly up the middle for Anze Kopitar, who burst through the middle, go the defense split and the right defenseman turned completely around, and got inside the blueline, approached the net, and winged a wrist shot at full speed, from his full skating stride, which overwhelmed the goalie and beat him on the blocker side.
He described the goal after the game. “I knew I had a lot of speed, up the ice, so as soon as that pass went to Lewis, I knew there might be a little bit of room in the middle. I tried to take off and he hit me with a really nice pass, and I was able to beat him.”
So it was 1-1 with half of the game to go. It stayed like that until period three, when the Kings took over. Not that they dominated on offense. Rather, they just started to play their game, which is short passes and puck possession. This resulted in the line of King-Clifford-Nolan (King there because of earlier disruptions due to penalties) to put the LA team up by 2-1. It came when King tossed a pass to Nolan, who streaked across the high slot and put a backhand up and over Andrei Vasilevskiy in the Lightning net.
That just goes to show you that even a fourth-line player, one of the slightly weaker ones on the team, can be an amazing offensive threat bytimes. He modestly commented, “I kind of just threw it on the net hoping it would sneak through.” Well, it was a rocket, placed perfectly, so if that’s luck, he’ll take it.
The Kings got another one when, after disrupting play in their own end, they went down into Tampa’s zone and flung a puck in the form of a Jeff Carter wrist shot that beat the netminder. Doughty and King assisted on that one, which came just before six minutes to go. Meanwhile, they were containing Tampa’s offense, giving them just five shots in the third period.
Kopitar also said, “Things are coming together for us. We’re playing with more desperation. We should have before, but now things are clicking for us. We’re getting some breaks too; that certainly doesn’t hurt. We’ve just got to keep on going. We know that, and we have to keep on playing and getting the two points.”
The Lightning did not look effective at all in the third. They couldn’t sustain any pressure, because LA didn’t let them. Their coach, Jon Cooper, said after the game, “They’re a big, strong team. We got a little tired at the end, which is understandable.” The team has played four games in a week and eight in February already. “We played well enough to get a point out of this game,” he said, and repeated, “We’ve got to get our rest.” He said that he saw the letdown a little bit in period three.
They did score late, when Drew Doughty missed a clear and Tyler Johnson got a shot past Quick. The net in the Florida end was empty at the time, with less than a minute to go. Then, right at the end, Steven Stamkos had a puck come to him low on the left side of the zone. It was hard to see from my press box position whether then ensuing shot was saved or would have hit the side of the net, but Quick got there one way or the other, and the game ended at 3-2.
What this means, for those of you looking at the playoff picture, is that while LA is still not in, they’ve found their form, and not a second too soon. Now that this has happened, the West, let alone whoever is to come out of the East eventually, needs to look out.
Coach Sutter, whose recalcitrant ways have made press conferences an awkward waste of two minutes, said this after the game: “Killing the penalties was a turning point in this game.” He said that the last five games have been good because “we manage to kill penalties right through. Not taken many. A big kill can [inaudible]. Goals against us, if you’re not in the top ten in the league, you’re not going to make the playoffs, that’s for sure.”
Then when asked about the lack of power play scoring, he said, “I just said if you’re not in the top ten in the league, you don’t make the playoffs.” He later commented on the “big goals, Nolan’s goal was a big goal and so was Carter’s goal. Going back to that [prior] question, getting goals from different lines. You can’t just get it from one line. You have to spread it around a little bit.”
And that’s a wrap.
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