East Coasters and Canadian Division fans don’t much know or care what’s happening out West, it seems. Most have assumed that the fourth spot (after Vegas and Colorado, already in, and Minnesota, a lock at 63 points) will go to the Blues. Don’t look now, but they don’t hold the final playoff berth. Arizona does.
But the Kings, yo, were sitting on 40 points entering Friday night (Arizona had 45), and they had games in hand on all the three teams ahead of them. So they’re in seventh, and that’s not good, but the math is ever so slightly in their favor.
But none of that matters if they can’t beat Minnesota, which was their Friday night task. The Wild came in having won all of their last five games, and gaining an OT point in the contest prior to that packet. But it should be noted that they were playing the weaker teams in the Division, relative to them, including San Jose and Arizona. And they might have been running on motivation not to be embarrassed, as they had been the game before all of these just mentioned, losing 9-1 to St. Louis.
LA had nowhere near as shiny a record in their last five, winning two and losing three. They thus needed something, anything, to spark. If only they could play like last year, when during the final 13 games, they went 10-2-1. This game versus the Wild was the first of their last remaining 13 for this season.
Unfortunately for them, the first bomb that went off on Friday after their 7pm start was called “Kirill Kaprizof,” who potted his 20thgoal of the year on a lovely play down the right wall. He put it between his own legs before cutting to the net and shooting high past LA goalie Cal Petersen.
The Kings didn’t fold. They forechecked. And it paid off with about .9 seconds left in the first period. Gabe Vilardi swept a puck out from behind the net and somehow through the goalie, to the opposite side of the crease for Trevor Moore to redirect back into the net.
The shots in period one were 11-6 in favor of the Kings, helped by three on their only power play. The Wild had no man advantage situations.
The second period saw the Kings continue to control play. They had many chances, including these: early on, Doughty took a wrister down the slot. He missed. Kopitar and Brown got it to the net. Kopitar put it off the goalie from behind the net. It didn’t go in. Athanasiou got off a shot, got the puck back, and took another. Saved. Kempe put the puck to the net for Moore to chip. He couldn’t.
The Kings got a power play, and they excelled on that. Kopitar put the puck to Iafallo across zone. He missed the one-timer. Iafallo whipped a shot. Pad save. Moore and Vilardi jammed at the side of the net. Nothing going. Vilardi fought his way across the zone and shot from a distance. One more stop.
In the midst of all that, Kaprizov did it again, this time on the PP. He went across the slot and put a deceptive wrister past Petersen. This was his 6thgoal in eight games versus LA this year. The shots after two periods were what the above sounds like they would be: 31-13 in Los Angeles’s favor. The score was still 2-1 against them.
Minnesota came out strong in period three and erased the shots deficit some, but what really mattered was that they upped the goal deficit against the Kings. The LA team had just wasted a three-on-two when Kopitar passed to Iafallo too low to shoot, and Iafallo passed it back across the goalmouth with nobody there. Bonino on the subsequent play took the puck out from behind the net and put it across the crease to Nico Sturm. He redirected it in to make the game 3-1.
The Wild had a power play shortly after, and while it was not productive, it chewed up time and left just six minutes when it ended. Petersen made one excellent leg save on the PP.
The next minute saw the Kings in the Wild zone, three shots taken, one on net—and a save by Talbot.
Five to go—Kopitar closed it to within a goal when he took the puck around the net and banked it in off the goalie’s glove as he came across to intercept. It was Kopitar’s 995thpoint. He’s looking for 1000 before the year is out. For the Kings’ sake, he’d better do it sooner than later.
The Kings had a power play with a couple of minutes to go when they were already in the goalie-pull zone. They blew it. I’m saying that rather than, “They didn’t score,” because they did what they always do, which is to endlessly make cross-seam passes, always working the puck lower and lower and never shooting the thing on net. Their only chance was a Kopitar wrister that hit Talbot’s catching glove and bounced down. Moore couldn’t get a handle on it, but in truth, in looked more dangerous than it was, because the initial shot was telegraphed, too slow, and too late.
So the LA team wasted their opportunity to pull within three points of the playoffs, and they lost their game in hand to the team two spots ahead of them, St. Louis.
The Kings have no choice but to play all-out to win every game from here on out, though they’re helped by their schedule. They play the Arizona on Saturday and the Ducks on Monday night, then again on Wednesday and again on Friday. And Saturday. Eight points in those games will put them right back in it, and then it’s Phoenix for two. I mean Arizona. So to put it another way, the next time the Kings face a quality team in terms of top-of-the-division will be the last seven calendar days of the season. The bad news? That’s Colorado, and they have to face the Avs four times in the last seven days.
After the game, Coach McLellan put things simply: “A loss is a loss. We’re moving on. In fact, we better be over it already, because we’ve got a big game tomorrow. We didn’t climb tonight, but we didn’t fall, that’s a good thing, so we get another chance tomorrow. We put the same type of effort in and the same type of game, we’ll win our share.”
This was LA’s Adrian Kempe’s 300thNHL game. After the game, he was positive about how his team had played. “We played a pretty good sixty minutes. They’re a pretty good team, and they’re going to have their chances.”
Gabe Vilardi concurred and noted the size of Minnesota and how the big bodies keep the front of the net clear.
Brian Kennedy is a member of the Professional Hockey Writers Assocation.