LOS ANGELES- The Western Conference playoffs have begun early and the Los Angeles Kings took a big step toward advancing into the round of eight as well as eliminating the ebb-and-flow Calgary Flames Monday night at Staples Center.
The Kings’ 2-1 victory in a shootout gave them a bit of breathing room against the Flames along with a plethora of Western Conference clubs pursuing playoff berths and an opportunity to host a first-round series.
Although the Kings entered the game in a tie for fifth in the West and the Flames were in sole possession of tenth place, a mere two points separated the squads entering the latest in a series of critical four-point games. The two teams have now played a combined 12 one-goal games in March alone.
“It could have went either way the whole night. Both sides played physical, it was a skating game, it was intense and you get into a shootout, we know how they are, most teams it’s 50/50 and it didn’t go our way tonight,” said the Flames captain Jarome Iginla.
While a shootout may often be a 50/50 situation, it has not been for the Kings with Jonathan Quick in net. Quick is 20-7 lifetime in shootouts and a perfect 8-0 this season. Los Angeles got goals from Jarret Stoll and Anze Kopitar in the shootout, besting the lone goal for Calgary from the veteran left winger Alex Tanguay.
“I have give a lot of credit to the guys shooting the puck for us,” said Quick. “When we score two out of three I think we’re going to win more times than not. They’ve been doing that all year, (Stoll) has been absolutely clutch for the past year on the shootout.”
Stoll’s career percentage has skyrocketed above 50 in the shootout thanks to an astonishing seven-for-eight performance in this season. The Kings’ leading scorer Kopitar scored the winner on a nifty slow-down move replete with smooth stick-handling.
“(Kopitar) can do those moves, and hopefully we can win a lot of those games. It’s fun to see him going like that, be fancy, and score,” said Stoll, who also scored the Kings’ only goal in regulation.
Quick and Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff each stopped 27 of 28 shots in a game that required both men to maintain focus and establish a forcefield in front of their net.
The first frame was carried mostly by the Flames thanks to a pair of power plays on which Quick had to be razor sharp in goal. Calgary connected on several long passes and doubled the Kings up 6-3 in shots on goal through 19 minutes of play, but the game remained scoreless at the first intermission.
Early in the second, another Flames power play placed the Kings in peril once again with Iginla and Tanguay setting each other up for a pair of one timers. Tanguay’s broken stick and a narrow pad-and-post save on Iginla kept the game scoreless , leading to yet another successful kill for the outstanding L.A. units.
“That was a tough one because I thought we had them tired out pretty good,” said Iginla. “They were battling but one broken stick on a power play and some really good opportunities. That one, I thought we were gonna get one. We had as many good looks as you’re gonna get and, unfortunately, we weren’t able to get one by him there.”
The Kings ended up six-for-six on the penalty kill. They have killed 35 straight and 78 of their last 83 disadvantages.
Returning to even strength, Wayne Simmonds’s one-man counterattack led to a Los Angeles power play as Cory Sarich hooked Simmonds after he got behind the Calgary defense.
The Kings power play provided limited intrigue in the next two minutes as they muddled toward a third straight game without a power-play tally. They did sustain pressure and test Kiprusoff later in the frame. The former Vezina winner Kiprusoff met the challenge as he made three difficult saves in a row to stave off brilliant execution by the Kings.
“That is exactly what we’ve been talking about and what we need to see on a regular basis,” said Kings Head Coach Terry Murray. “Get pucks to the net, shot mentality and do it over again. If you get the opportunity, you recover pucks, you get it back up top and you shoot again. That works, that’s the best look I’ve seen from this hockey club this year.”
The tight checking, shot blocking, adept penalty killing and sound goaltending persisted throughout the second stanza and left the game scoreless through 40 minutes.
Ryan Smyth nearly broke open the scoring early in the third with a deft, backhanded stuff attempt that was improbably stoned by the right pad of Kiprussoff.
“I was a little late on that,” said Kiprusoff. “He’s a good player around the net. I thought he was going to pass from behind the net. I just threw my leg there, it hit my skate and it stayed outside.”
The Kings finally put a goal on the board when Brad Richardson bounced a shot off Kiprusoff’s left pad that was rifled in on the rebound by Stoll. Simmonds’s strong play out of the corner set up the shot and Simmonds earned the secondary assist.
Calgary responded immediately as Steve Staios’s stretch pass found Olli Jokinen well ahead of Jack Johnson at the blue line. Jokinen cruised in on net and used a drag move to his backhand to push the puck past Quick for the equalizer.
Each team earned a critical point in the standings as the game headed to overtime.
A bench minor for too many men on the ice left the Kings at a four-on-three disadvantage late in overtime. Quick and the iron three of Kopitar, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene neutralized the Calgary advantage and sent the game to a shootout.
“Those three guys there are a staple for our penalty kill They’ve been getting it all done all year,” said Quick. “They make my job a lot easier when they’re in front of me, blocking shots, clearing out rebounds and doing their part.”
A Kiprsuoff poke check shut down Michal Handzus’s opening bid for the Kings.
Tanguay threw Quick’s timing off as he held the puck wide before wristing it high over Quick’s glove to give Calgary a 1-0 lead.
Stoll’s slick stick-handling opened up the space he found on the low stick side to push the shootout to a deuce.
Rene Bourque’s toe drag to his backhand had Quick beat but Bourque dinged the post, creating a ping that may ring in his ears the rest of the night.
Kopitar slowed down as he cruised in on Kiprusoff and after a series of stick handles put a backhand shot through the goalie.
With the game on his stick, Curtis Glencross fired wide of the net, sending Los Angeles onto victory.
The Kings earned the win but suffered a loss when the resurgent forward Justin Williams suffered an upper-body injury, what appeared to be a dislocated shoulder. His status remains unknown but a Manchester Monarchs call-up seems likely.
Calgary lost in overtime at Anaheim last night. They stormed back from an 0-3 deficit to take a 4-3 lead only to fall on a Corey Perry winner, the exact same fate that befell the Kings in their last game.
While they are in a three-way points tie for eighth place, the Flames do not hold the tiebreaker against the other two teams, Dallas and Anaheim. Both clubs also have three games in hand on the Flames, who have played more than any other team in the NHL so far this season with 75 games behind them.
“We have seven games left, we know we’re going to have win a lot of them,” Iginla said.
Both teams will next face San Jose, Calgary visits the Sharks Wednesday and Los Angeles hosts them Thursday.