LOS ANGELES- The Los Angeles Kings sewed up a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 2-1 shootout victory over the Phoenix Coyotes Wednesday night at Staples Center.
“This is the best time of my life,” said Kings Head Coach Terry Murray. “What else would I rather be doing than coaching a hockey club, and at this time of the year?”
In a fashion befitting their high-effort, high-stress season, the Kings took 65 minutes and three shooters to win a one-goal game replete with jammed lanes, big saves and near misses.
The lethal shootout combination of center Jarret Stoll and goalie Jonathan Quick secured the triumph and the playoff berth despite wins by both the Anaheim Ducks and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Quick moved to 10-0 on the season and 22-7 lifetime in shootouts while Stoll improved to an astonishing 9-for-10 on shootout attempts this year. The tandem has made the Kings the best team in the NHL in shootouts. Murray said he has never seen anything quite like Stoll’s performance this season.
“It is pretty amazing, he’s coming in and he just finds a way to get it done at an important time,” said the coach with four decades of pro hockey behind him. “Again, everything’s on the line and he looks so relaxed going in, it’s good to see.”
The early going brought tight checking and plenty of blocked shots, as well as two goalmouth scrambles and a stretch pass that sprung Brad Richardson for a breakaway.
Dustin Brown zigzagged to the net with determination, beating his man to the inside with a sweet toe-drag move to set up a cross-crease pass for Stoll, who opened the scoring.
“Unreal play by (Brown) to get around (Rostislov) Klesla there and then slide it to me backdoor. I didn’t really have to do much, it was all Brownie,” Stoll said.
Despite the strong effort from their captain Brown, the Kings continued their disturbing trend of giving up tying goals shortly after taking a lead. Lee Stempniak scored the equalizer when he tiptoed in behind the Phoenix forecheck to wrist home a puck dug out of the corner by his linemates.
Oscar Moller created a bouncing rebound that narrowly eluded Dustin Penner at the side of an open net.
A rebound off the left pad of Jonathan Quick would not get past Taylor Pyatt, however. He easily mopped up the mess made by Stempniak’s sharp-angle shot to make it 2-1.
Pyatt returned from an upper-body injury that left him sidelined for the past week.
“It’s great to have him back. There’s not many guys that have the stance and are as big as he is or as strong on the puck so it’s a huge asset to us,” Stempniak said.
Matt Greene’s interference minor sent the Coyotes to the power play immediately in the second stanza. Los Angeles’ penalty kill remained stout and eradicated the disadvantage despite sustained possession by Phoenix.
Drew Doughty drove and dove aggressively to sweep the puck toward the net but it sailed wide. Doughty, who also saved a near-certain goal by the Phoenix captain Shane Doan, played as aggressively and actively as he has in any game since the All-Star break.
“We have to have that,” said coach Murray. “Doughty and Jack (Johnson) in particular, (Alec) Martinez I thought did a good job in the same way. Those guys, we need secondary scoring, we need to get our back end joining all of the time and getting pucks to the net.”
Penner set up Moller’s promising bid during a give-and-go exchange off a turnover. A left-pad deflection by Ilya Bryzgalov redirected the puck by the very finest of margins.
“Moller had great opportunities himself, he made a great individual effort to walk the seam on that one power play, great save by Bryzgalov,” Murray said.
An errant pass that squirted out of the Phoenix zone left Penner with a partial breakaway but he fired a hard shot right into the pads of Bryzgalov.
Wayne Simmonds outworked the all-star Keith Yandle to create space for hard drives to the net by himself and Kyle Clifford. Clifford pushed home Simmonds’ centering pass for his seventh goal of the season.
“You got a glimpse of the future there,” Murray said. “That was a great goal. That was a young kid, a 19-year-old, that’s showing you how to play a power game that is going to make him a real successful player on this team for a long time.”
Clifford earned first-star honors and was praised ubiquitously in the Kings’ dressing room.
“It tells me that he’s a clutch player and he can play in the playoffs,” said Stoll, who reached the Finals with the Edmonton Oilers. “He’s gotten better as the season’s gone on, as the games have become more important.”
“In this big playoff race that is so tight this year, (Clifford) is just doing a tremendous job, not only fighting and being physical but he’s scoring goals and making plays,” Stoll added.
Clifford said the night was important because it helped him realize his goals coming into training camp as a rookie expected to return to the OHL’s Barrie Colts for his final junior season: Make the team and help them make the playoffs.
He also deferred to his linemates, Richardson and Simmonds, who proved effective, energetic and trustworthy as they played in key situations throughout the game.
“We all get on the forecheck real hard and they’re good energy guys so we all complement each other,” Clifford said.
Early in the third, a flimsy breakout pass was intercepted by Stoll, who quickly dished the biscuit to Ryan Smyth. Bryzgalov shut down Smyth’s point-blank backhander.
Quick responded with his own key save, negating a Pyatt stuff attempt that came off strong transition by Phoenix.
Derek Morris’s tripping minor sent the Kings power play back over the boards. A fluid breakout set Smyth up with a sterling chance but a narrow stick deflection knocked his wrist shot off its course.
Doan’s drop pass gave Lauri Korpikoski a shot opportunity through traffic but Quick took the shot right in his chest and covered up for a faceoff. Quick defused a similar situation in which Doan dished to Eric Belanger for a dangerous shot moments later.
“We’ve been close, we’ve been around it, but we just haven’t found ways to win,” Doan said.
A redirected puck found the stick of Trevor Lewis in space, but Yandle quickly covered ground to make a diving deflection that averted disaster for Phoenix.
The game went to overtime where each team earned their choicest chances late in the frame. A two-on-one between the Kings’ cruising combo of Cadillacs, Penner and Michal Handzus, did not generate a shot on net. Quick made a superlative left-pad save on Stempniak at the other end seconds later.
Outshot 4-0 in overtime, the Kings survived the extra stanza as well as some dangerous counterattacks in the third largely because of the sound positioning and calm play of Quick. After enduring one of the roughest outings of his campaign against San Jose Monday, Quick excelled under pressure for his club Wednesday.
“He’s had great bounce-backs all year long and in the time that I’ve known him,” Murray said. “Even if it’s a play that maybe happened early in the game and now he has to shut it down, he’s had that capability and he’s been pretty impressive in that area.”
The game went to the shootout where the Kings have been the league’s best team, moving to 10-2 on the season with the win.
Handzus hesitated on his forehand before roofing a wrister past Bryzgalov’s glove to put the pressure on Phoenix.
Quick stayed with Belanger, who failed to get a shot on the L.A. net.
Stoll’s slick stick-handling preceded his shootout winner. Bryzgalov was beaten high to the glove side again.
The game was on the stick of Radim Vrbata. He zoomed in on Quick and lifted the puck over his glove and into the twine from in tight to give Phoenix life.
Brown beat Bryzgalov low to the glove side but dinged the outside of the goalpost.
The speedy Korpikoski had a chance to extend the game for Phoenix but Quick tracked him diligently and made the save to seal the win.
The Kings currently sit in sole possession of fourth place in the Western Conference, but lead both Phoenix and the Nashville Predators by a lone point in the standings.
Their two remaining games are a home-and-home set with crosstown rival Anaheim.
“We can take a deep breath and breathe out but we got two big games ahead of us,” Murray said. “We’ve got a couple big games against Anaheim who are playing well. We want to try to keep going to get the home ice advantage.”