Chicago Tomahawks Los Angeles 4-3

Once labeled a grinder, Patrick Sharp now has 23 goals as he approaches the midpoint of this season (Photo by Mark Mauno)

LOS ANGELES- The Los Angeles Kings surrendered four goals in their fourth consecutive loss marking their fourth defeat of the season at the hands of the Chicago Blackhawks.

Chicago winger Patrick Sharp now has four goals and four assists in four games against Los Angeles this year.

Despite more or less even play in the season series, it will go down as a sweep for the defending Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks.  His team’s 4-3 loss at Staples Center Monday had Kings Head Coach Terry Murray drawing an analogy that invoked a different sort of “fore!”

“It’s like the pro playing against the five-handicap golfer.  He just has to play the game because he knows that if you’re a five handicapper, something’s going to give somewhere down the road,” Murray said.

“Some days that five-handicap guy might win the game.  Unfortunately, I think we shot ourselves in the foot here again tonight with the intensity and details with the puck.”

Patrick Sharp crept back into the Kings’ nightmares as he scored twice and added an assist.

“He’s been great for us there and obviously it doesn’t matter who he’s playing with, he’s going out there, he’s creating offense and he’s scoring big goals for us,” Chicago’s captain Jonathan Toews said.

Toews returned from a shoulder injury well ahead of schedule after missing just two games.  He recorded an assist and netted the rather unusual game-winning goal.

“It was as lucky of a goal as I’ve ever seen,” Toews said.

Brent Seabrook’s shoveling attempt from the goal line became a magic bullet as it hit the boards, cleared the crossbar, hit  goalie Jonathan Quick, found the stick of Kings defenseman Drew Doughty in the slot and banked into the net off Toews’s lower body.

Doughty’s failed clearing attempt left him exasperated.

“He was kind of ticked off, I was sitting on the bench and he came by yelled at me that it was a lucky goal,” said Toews.  “I didn’t realize it was him at the time who tried to clear it, so I’ll have to give him a hard time for that one.”

Overall, Doughty played one of his more dynamic games of the season.  He skated hard through every inch of the ice, backchecked relentlessly and carried the puck aggressively.

“I really liked his attitude here tonight.  I thought the last few games here he’s really taken a look at trying to take charge and make a difference,” Murray said.

Doughty did not find the score sheet, but Jack Johnson did, assisting on a pair of Los Angeles power-play goals where his point shots were deflected home by screening forwards.

Los Angeles dominated the early going but built only a surmountable one-goal lead.

The scoring opened after Sharp’s slashing minor gave the Kings an early man advantage.  Los Angeles maintained possession for the majority of the power play. They nearly scored on a rebound bid by Marco Sturm on their first trip into the offensive zone.

On their second setup inside the Chicago zone, Johnson unleashed a hard, low-flying shot that Michal Handzus tipped into the net as the Chicago penalty was about to expire.

A makeshift checking line with Brad Richardson added to the regular wingers Kyle Clifford and Wayne Simmonds turned in an energetic shift after the goal.  An odd-man rush and plenty of subsequent traffic down low generated two offensive opportunities.

The shots on goal then stood at eight to zero for Los Angeles. The Kings would hit the net ten times before Chicago put its first shot on Quick, who stopped 24 of 28 shots in the loss.

The Kings would threaten again as Anze Kopitar set up Sturm with a brilliant chance off the rush, only to see the puck drift wide off the back side of his stick.

Bryan Bickell’s hooking penalty left shorthanded Chicago once more.  This time the Kings bore down but did not cash in, with their best opportunity coming from a Jarret Stoll rocket launched into the glove of Crawford from the right point

Chicago’s offense could seldom even manage to go one-and-done, often ending their possessions before they began.  Matt Greene laid a huge hip check on Sharp to end a Chicago possession instantly, typifying the Los Angeles defensive effort early in the game.  They made a high-flying team appear slow to the punch for most of the first period.

Ever-opportunistic, the defending champion Blackhawks seized a power-play chance to tie a game in which they had been manhandled.  Tomas Kopecky dropped a pass along the right wing boards for Marian Hossa down low.  Hossa silkily slinked out of the corner and stuffed the biscuit past Quick on the far side.

After the intermission, Chicago went to work quickly before a crowd that included several of their players’ mothers.

“Yeah, all the mothers came down and slapped us around a little bit,” said Sharp.  “It wasn’t the prettiest 20 minutes but like we said, we scored that big power-play goal that kept us in the game and gave us something to build off .”
They would erase a 13-6 Los Angeles shots-on-goal advantage. Both teams had hit the net 18 times at the end of two periods.

“That is Hossa’s favorite play on the power play, we know that, and he puts it in,”said Murray.  “But it should not have an affect on you the way it did the way it did in the last three quarters of the second period.”

Hossa nearly scored again when a classic Rush Street rush saw the ‘Hawks move the puck quickly from left wing to center to right wing with short, well-supported passes.  An open Hossa ripped a shot that dinged the far side post and went into the corner.

He would have yet another opportunity when Kopitar’s delay of game penalty gave the Blackhawks an offensive-zone, power-play faceoff where Patrick Kane set Hossa up with a one-timer off the draw.  The right pad of Quick neutralized the Chicago threat momentarily.

On the same power play, Los Angeles had their four penalty killers playing very deep in a horizontal, nearly single-file line.  Patrick Kane held the puck on the right side and zipped a pass to the crafty Sharp, who had sneaked behind the Kings defense to fire a one-timer into an enormous opening in the Los Angeles net.

“I thought we backed off a little bit too far on (Kane),” said Murray.  “I thought we gave him a little bit too much time. We really backed inside of the faceoff dot, probably five or six feet too far.”

Vulnerability to low-to-high passes became a part of the Los Angeles defensive motif. Toews sent a pass out of the corner to Sharp for a one-timer and Kane backhanded a pass through traffic to a wide open Duncan Keith for another chance.  Both shots were saved by Quick and on the first play Toews was buried by a Clifford check.

The Kings weathered that storm and then completed a successful penalty kill following a Justin Williams minor.

Los Angeles gained a bit of momentum after Dustin Brown blasted Brian Campbell behind the Chicago net and Kopitar dinged a goalpost with a deceptively dangerous 58-foot wrist shot.

The Kings would regain their defensive footing and mount a successful counterattack against Chicago’s newfound aggression.  Doughty stood Jack Skille up at the blue line, creating a Williams takeaway. Williams found Ryan Smyth behind the defense and the typically plodding forward capitalized by snapping a breakaway chance low past Corey Crawford, who negated 26 of 29 Los Angeles bids on net.

Still, the second stanza belonged to Chicago’s skill players as Kane, Toews, Hossa and Sharp loomed over Los Angeles at even strength and on the power play.  A cycle between the newly formed top line—Troy Brouwer, Toews and Hossa—resulted in a wide open shot for an activated Seabrook, who sent the puck well wide of the net.

The final frame began with the Kings showcasing their own skill players as Kopitar, Brown and Doughty executed a sort of three-man weave play that afforded Doughty a beautiful opportunity from the right slot.  Crawford deflected the shot away and the Blackhawks quickly went the other way seeking to take advantage of Doughty’s deep offensive position.  The former Norris Trophy nominee Doughty skated hard and negated Dave Bolland’s would-be breakaway with a flick of his stick.

A persistent drive by Sharp gave Chicago the lead.  Similar to Hossa’s goal, Sharp received a pass near the wall, drove toward the net and scored from point-blank range on the far side of the net.  Unlike Hossa, Sharp was harassed by the body and stick of defenseman Davis Drewiskie, but he managed to recover the loose puck to sweep it past Quick.

The goals scored by Sharp were numbers 22 and 23 on the season, placing him on a pace for 46 goals on the year. Sharp, whose career high at any level came when he scored 36 for Chicago in 2006-2007, was not billed as a goal-scorer when the Philadelphia Flyers took him in the third round nine years ago.  Now, he could become a 50-goal scorer.

“It’s a long ways away.  As far as the goal-scoring, I think it’s something that I’ve gotten better at as the years go on in my career,” said Sharp.  “It feels good that I can score in a win.  We’ve been struggling here the last few games, it’s nice to get everyone back healthy and win a game. Hopefully the goals continue to come.”

The Kings had trouble exiting the defensive zone prior to the goal and it cost them.

“That puck that we have right at the blue line with the third goal, that should never happen.  That should never come back into our zone,” Murray said.

Murray also emphasized discipline and a resistance to selfish, retaliatory penalties.

However, it was Chicago who jeopardized their lead with a string of minors in the third period.

A bench minor for too many men on the ice sent Los Angeles to the power play.  Just as the Blackhawks completed the penalty kill, Keith’s clearing attempt went over the glass, drawing another minor penalty.

Doughty snaked swiftly through all four Chicago penalty killers and nearly set up Sturm for a tying goal, one of three major chances for Sturm that just did not quite materialize.  He was replaced by Richardson on the first line in the third period.

“Marco’s getting back into the game, we’re going through training camp for him now,” Murray said.

Despite largely unfounded speculation about lingering concussion issues and substandard conditioning, Doughty looked every bit the force he did when he was nominated as one of the top three defenseman in the NHL last season at age 20.

“What we saw on that one rush in the third period is the Doughty we saw last year and the first year.  Where there’s an opportunity, he’s gonna tie the game up, he’s gonna make a difference in the game.  I liked it a lot,” Murray said.

The Kings would draw a high-sticking call against Toews to set up a brief two-man advantage.

After the Keith penalty had expired, the Kings managed to even the score as a patient sequence left Johnson with another point shot. This one was redirected past Crawford by Smyth for his second goal of the night and the Kings’ second power-play tally.

Yet the euphoria of the tying goal would soon fade into a mix of confusion and frustration as Toews’s oddball goal gave Chicago the lead for good.

“That comes off the boards or off the glass, it almost went in off Quick’s head, I think, when it came over the top of the crossbar.  That’s bad luck,” Murray said.

“I guess when you’re the Stanley Cup champion, you probably get breaks. You probably get lucky bounces like that, but I really felt we shouldn’t have put ourselves in that situation.”

Despite Smyth’s two goals and some active play from Williams and Stoll, Murray said he would still like to see an offensive resurgence from his formerly scorching second line.

“The makeup is there, it should be happening on a more consistent basis,” Murray said.

Stoll last scored a goal on Dec. 2 and has recorded a point in only three games since.  He had two solid opportunities to break out of his slump with a late equalizer, a slap shot that was devoured by Crawford and a wrister that was blocked en route to the net.

The Kings got a final push with Kopitar finding the puck in prime scoring position.  He sent a picturesque sliding shot to the space above Crawford’s pad and below his catching glove, but Crawford snared the puck to preserve the win.

Unable to draw even with Quick pulled from his net, the Kings fell to the Blackhawks for the fourth and final time this regular season.

“We played them well.  The two games in their building we played very well, and lost,” said Stoll.  “0-4 against them is not a stat we’re proud of, but we have to work on our game and get it to where it needs to be for the final half of the season to get into the playoffs and go deep.  We have to figure that out.”