LOS ANGELES- On the final night of NHL action before the All-Star break, fans at Staples Center Wednesday night were treated a postseason preview as the Los Angeles Kings downed the San Jose Sharks 3-2 in a shootout.
“That was a playoff hockey game, that was a good game. It was hard, it was heavy, there was good checking, there was some big hits, there was some scoring, it was a fun game,” Los Angeles Head Coach Terry Murray said.
Jonathan Quick made 22 of 24 saves while his opposite number Antti Niemi stopped 18 of 20 shots on goal, including several outstanding scoring opportunities.
“Big goaltending at both ends, both guys I thought were very big, they came up not only in the overtime and the shootout, but on the five-on-five. There were a couple plays that both goaltenders looked outstanding,” Murray said.
The strong netminding and hard checking left the game in a 2-2 tie after 65 minutes of play. In the fourth round of the shootout, Jarret Stoll’s picturesque wrist shot beat Niemi. It decided the game after the former San Jose captain Patrick Marleau could not respond with a conversion of his own.
“It was a tough game. I thought we played pretty hard. Both teams played like they needed those points. It would have been nice to end it on that shootout,” San Jose forward Ryan Clowe said.
The Kings also held San Jose’s “big four”—Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Dan Boyle and Marleau—off the score sheet entirely. Thornton has not scored in any of the four meetings this year with Los Angeles, leaving him exactly four points shy of a point-per-game pace with 44 points in 48 games.
“That’s a team effort,” said Murray. “You’ve got to have the right D out there to match up with them, we believe, on the back end more than the line matchup, and your goaltender has to be very big. I mean, Quick was outstanding. That’s three games in a row for him now that he’s been great.”
The first period passed with a goalmouth scramble at each end but few outstanding plays in a typically tight-checking game between the two big, deep squads. Los Angeles tested Niemi three times in the final five minutes, with Niemi utilizing a different piece of equipment on each save.
“Both teams really need two points, it’s a tough atmosphere,” Kings defenseman Drew Doughty told Fox Sports at the first intermission.
Ryan Smyth’s penalty just before the break afforded San Jose nearly a full, two-minute power play on fresh ice.
Logan Couture’s pivoting chance off a puck recovery was swallowed up by the body of Quick midway through the power play. The Kings would kill the penalty without allowing another shot on net.
Anze Kopitar’s stealthy takeaway in traffic yielded an open shot that he sent wide of the San Jose cage to keep the game scoreless.
Smyth opened the scoring with a smooth hesitation move off the rush. After he received a pass on the right wing boards, Smyth dragged the puck behind him as Heatley and San Jose defenseman Douglas Murray collided to open up a shooting lane. Smyth drifted inside of the two defenders and slipped a quick, low shot past Niemi from the right slot.
“That’s one of those great plays that win big games in playoff looks, and it was a veteran player that made the play,” Murray said.
San Jose swiftly knotted the contest when a Los Angeles scoring chance transformed quickly into a counterattack. Clowe swooped on a puck fresh off the pads of Niemi and carried the puck all the way up ice as part of a three-on-two rush, which he finished unassisted when he roofed the biscuit past Quick on the far side.
Thirty-nine seconds later, a deep cycle yielded a doorstep tally for Devon Setoguchi when his shove of the puck somehow found its way through Quick’s pads for a goal assisted by Logan Couture.
“Seto(guchi) made a great play on that goal,” said San Jose’s Calder Trophy candidate Couture. “We forechecked and forced Quick to kind of bring it up the wall. He made a great play wrapping it and throwing it toward the net. It went between his pads and slid in.”
Quick, who has been plagued at times by puckhandling errors this season including a woeful night when the Kings hosted the Minnesota Wild, credited the Sharks and quickly moved forward to play an outstanding second half of the game.
“You forget about it, you get a short memory, you move on and you’ve got to be there to make the next save,” Quick said.
A live wrister from Luke Richardson handcuffed Niemi momentarily. The Finnish netminder looked behind him before realizing he had actually trapped the puck with his glove. His save ensured the Sharks would carry a 2-1 advantage into the second intermission.
Quick was tested early and responded well, shrugging off a sharp Marleau shot in the opening moments of the third.
Niemi upped the ante after Dustin Brown’s takeaway and alert dish left Kopitar with a brilliant one-time opportunity in the slot that was negated by Niemi’s shoulder.
“I think he caught the goalie on the shoulder, it was a great shot. You have to give credit the goalie for the save, I guess,” Murray said.
Another San Jose turnover led to a chance for the Stoll line off the rush but Niemi was again up to the challenge.
Toward the end of the next shift, extended pressure the Kings created a loose puck in front that was lifted home on the backhand by Alexei Ponikarovsky. After a strong chance for each scoring line, it was the Los Angeles fourth line that broke through with the equalizer.
“It was a pretty long (shift) but when you’ve got those guys in the zone like that, you have to stick there. Try to outbattle them and put the puck in the net,” Ponikarovsky said.
Murray pointed to the shift as exemplary, saying it was the type of effort you could show in training camp to incoming players. He also expressed optimism that the goal could key a resurgence for Ponikarovsky, who has battled injuries and mixed form for the better part of this season.
A penalty for too many men proved somewhat costly for San Jose. First it negated a Kyle Wellwood scoring chance on the delayed whistle and then it sent the Kings to the power play. Justin Williams launched an ascending shot toward the face of Niemi, who gloved the puck confidently for a freeze.
Soon after they killed the penalty, the Sharks came with pressure, first mounting an attack with the high-scoring defenseman Boyle operating down in the faceoff circle during a delayed penalty. They then intensified their offense further during a double-minor penalty assessed to Richardson, but Quick and his penalty killers held firm to preserve the tie score.
“That was a hell of an opportunity, with six minutes left and you got a four-minute power play,”said Clowe. “But I give them credit, we had a couple of chances, not too many huge opportunities on that power play, so that was probably the difference.”
The capacity crowd was resurrected first by the 60-minute effort against the Boston Bruins Monday and then by the four-minute effort against the San Jose power play tonight. The fans delivered roars and cheers with each save, block or clear.
“They give you energy, especially in that situation where it’s a bit taxing on your body. It’s taxing on the legs. The crowd getting into like they did, you kind of feed off their energy,” Quick said.
In overtime, a slipping Sharks defender left Ponikarovsky alone gliding in on Niemi. The hulking Russian forward Ponikarovsky missed the net wide, ending a promising rush.
“I wish that I could raise the puck a little bit more on that shot and for sure hit the net,” said Ponikarovsky. “I was kind of upset with myself about that because you can end it right there.”
Seconds later, a give-and-go play nearly left Doughty with a tap-in winner but the puck sailed wide of his stick.
The pace quickened as Alec Martinez’s backcheck negated a Setoguchi breakaway and Williams was denied on a chance deep in the other end just afterward.
Another strong, spinning play by Couture in front of the net went off the pad of Quick. The ensuing counterattack led to yet another chance, this time for Smyth, but a final Niemi save sent the game to a shootout.
Two outstanding shootout moves met improbably ill fates in the first three attempts for each team.
Kopitar swung wide right, arched left and attempted to utilize his reach in dragging the puck back to the far side for a stuff attempt a la Peter Forsberg. He beat Niemi but dinged the post to post an X on the scoreboard.
Couture came in on the net with purpose but his slick scoring bid was nullified by the skate blade of a sprawling Quick.
“When I went to my backhand I kind of lifted my stick and I turned around and I knew he was pushing across that way and he was sprawled out. I don’t know how he saved it,” Couture said.
In the continuation of the shootout, Stoll’s subtle drag move opened up the glove side high for the veteran pivot Stoll’s letter-perfect wrist shot to find the twine.
The game rested on the stick of the San Jose captain Marleau, who fired a point in the standings right into the blocker of Quick.
“It’s huge, absolutely. We need wins, we need two points every time we come out,”said Quick. “We dug a little hole for ourselves and I think we’re doing a good job of starting to climb back out but we still have a lot of work to do.”
After the All-Star break, the Kings will head out on a ten-game swing away from Staples Center. With a medley of winnable games and tough opponents, the Kings seemed, to a man, undaunted by the task ahead.
“Hotel rooms get old fast,”said defenseman Jack Johnson. “You start craving home-cooked meals, restaurants and room service get old. Other than that, I think playing on the road is fun. Some guys like kind of being the bad guy.”