LOS ANGELES- Wayne Simmonds scored twice, Drew Doughty netted the game-winner and Jonathan Bernier made 25 of 27 saves as the Los Angeles Kings won a key, four-point game against streaking Minnesota Wild Thursday night at Staples Center.
“(Simmonds) was playing really well, he was making plays, he was responsible all over the ice and he got rewarded with two goals,” Kings center Anze Kopitar said.
Minnesota broke their four-game, head-to-head point streak against the Kings. Both teams have surged into the playoff picture in recent weeks, thanks largely to strong play on the road.
The Wild were 10-4-1 in their last fifteen road contests. Meanwhile, the Kings just returned from a smashingly successful 6-1-3 road trip, a journey that began with a 1-0 overtime loss at Minnesota.
Los Angeles returned that favor as they handed the Wild a loss to begin a stint in which the team will play eight of its next 11 games away from the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn.
The win also gave the Kings a loose grip on fifth place in the Western Conference, two points ahead of Minnesota, who sat tied with Calgary, Chicago, Dallas and Nashville with 70 points.
“We’re going have to scratch and claw for everything. Whether you get one point or two points, every one is valuable and we just have to come to play every night,” Simmonds said.
Simmonds, who was relieved to score his first goal–and his second goal–in the past 17 games, expressed modesty regarding his own contribution.
“It’s just a case of me getting the puck off quick, I’m not wasting any time,” said Simmonds. “I got two great passes from Jack (Johnson) and Kopi(tar) so I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help the team.”
The Kings tested Wild goalie Niklas Backstrom a bit early but did not apply intense pressure until a power play that came at 11:33. The Kings sustained pressure to the tune of four shots on net in one trip into the offensive zone. Their fourth shot was a rising wrister to the far side from Simmonds that opening the scoring.
Both teams came in hot on the penalty kill. The Wild had killed 13 straight prior to the Simmonds goal and the Kings have negated 39 of their last 41 penalties despite allowing a power-play goal by Brent Burns Thursday.
“We struggled especially early in the game. I think we talked about it a little bit afterwards and I felt we were better there,” Minnesota Wild Head Coach Todd Richards said. “But you have to give them credit they played hard. They’re big and their doing a good job skating, pursuing and creating those battles.”
Early in the second period, a powerful move by Dustin Brown generated a loud scoring chance that was muted only by a hooking penalty to Wild defenseman Clayton Stoner. The ensuing advantage afforded the Kings three shots on goal plus another at even strength, widening their advantage to 19-7.
Despite their dominating puck possession, the Kings found themselves in a tie game four minutes into the second stanza. During a line change, Eric Nystrom split two defenders and challenged a third en route to a soft flip of the puck that beat Bernier between his pads.
Kings Head Coach Terry Murray, who emphasized a tighter defensive game to his squad after the win, gave credit to Nystrom but was disappointed with the Los Angeles defensive effort on the play.
“That’s where you dig in and you don’t let a guy get to your net,” said Murray. “That got them excited and they had some shifts in the second period where they were creating a lot of good things with Bernier needing to make some very big stops.”
Soon after, a silky sequence of long passes left an activated defenseman, Burns, with the puck in prime real estate at the left side of the net but a sliding Bernier gave Burns little to shoot at.
Bernier has settled into the first backup gig of his life, posting a strong .939 save percentage in his last six starts dating back to Jan. 15.
“He looked real sharp, he’s aggressive, he’s doing all the right things right now,” Murray said.
Simmonds struck again to break the tie. He collected a loose puck and began an abbreviated cycle on the right wing that culminated in another twine-seeking missile that beat Backstrom high to the far side.
Burns made another strong play carrying the puck off a turnover against four Kings and setting up Cal Clutterbuck with a brilliant one-time chance that the Wild right winger fired high and wide.
Minnesota found its legs as the period wore on and were energized by a brief scrap between the unlikely participants Martin Havlat and Brown. Neither man was assessed a penalty but a delayed interference call against Doughty sent Minnesota to the power play. Matt Cullen’s gritty faceoff win allowed Burns to blast a seeing-eye shot through traffic and into the L.A. net for the equalizer just before the intermission.
“It was a great shot,” said Murray. “On the faceoff, the puck was lying there, both centermen fell down. (Stoll) tried to grab it with his hand, then as the puck goes back to Burns everybody’s moving in that slot area now and I think that Bernier was screened on it.”
Ryan Smyth’s drop pass for Brown led to a shot-pass one-timer for Doughty, who scored easily from between the circles to recapture the Los Angeles lead for good
“The rush was a really good goal,” Murray said. “That’s something you work at hard all year long where you get that drive, drive, drive attitude. Stoll drives through to the net, backs off the defenseman, Brown comes in late and finds Doughty and executes the play the right way; that’s the way you diagram it.”
Activating defensemen and stretch passes have become more effective weapons for the Kings of late. Willie Mitchell scored the game-winner against Anaheim Wednesday, Jack Johnson has pushed the pace consistently and Doughty’s strong play netted the deciding goal Thursday.
“They have good mobile defense. You have to give them credit they played pretty well,” Cullen said. “They came out hard and they fore-checked hard and they have some D that can break a puck out and make some plays. That was a big part of them winning tonight.”
Murray has emphasized offensive activity from the blue line since training camp and the former defenseman was enthused by the effort Thursday.
“You have to get your back end really involved in the offensive part of the game today. The structure of teams playing in front of you and their checking game, it’s very hard to attack with only three players on a consistent basis and hope good things happen. The only way is secondary attack and that’s exactly what we saw with Doughty tonight.”
Kopitar’s low left slot shot nearly provided an insurance goal but it dinged the intersection of the left post and crossbar to preserve Minnesota’s chances at drawing even yet again.
The Wild went to the power play with under two minutes left after a Smyth tripping minor. They took advantage of an offensive-zone draw with 1:27 remaining to call their timeout and pull Backstrom from his net to create a six-on-four advantage. They won the faceoff and sent a feeble shot toward Bernier. Off the subsequent, scrambled draw, Kopitar recovered the puck and scored an empty-net goal from the far left faceoff dot to seal the deal for L.A.
Despite his scoring on a 185-foot shot that split the goalposts like a Jan Stenerud kick and provided relief for his squad, Kopitar offered a simple explanation for the uncommon goal.
“I knew the net was empty so I just kind of let it go and it worked out,” Kopitar said.
The goal averted the Kings’ ninth one-goal game in their last 12 contests. They earned points in every one of those eight one-goal games, continuing their excellence in tight games under Murray.
“I would sure like to have the ability to win by four or five but you have to know how to (win close games) and we’re doing a pretty job at it,” Murray said.