The Los Angeles Kings have finished ahead of San Jose in the Pacific Division standings only once in 12 years. Although they moved ahead of the Sharks with an invigorating win Tuesday night, the Kings realize it is unwise to check the standings in this crazy Western Conference race until it is all over.
Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards each had a goal and two assists, and the Kings moved into an eighth-place tie in the West with their fifth consecutive victory, 5-2 over the stumbling Sharks.
Alec Martinez scored the tiebreaking goal in the second period, Dustin Penner added an insurance goal with 4:06 to play, and Jeff Carter had an empty-netter for the Kings, who are tied with the Phoenix Coyotes in the Pacific Division, just one point behind first-place Dallas.
After a midseason lull that cost coach Terry Murray his job, Los Angeles is peaking at a near-perfect time. With four strong lines controlling the puck and wearing out weary San Jose, the Kings controlled the final two periods behind more strong play from All-Star Jonathan Quick, who made 20 saves.
”I don’t know if you want to wait until the end of the year to play like this, but we’re doing it now,” said Kopitar, who has seven points in four games. ”It’s nice to see us in the playoff picture, but we know there’s still a lot of work to be done. We’re definitely showing signs. Tonight was a huge game. We knew what was at stake, and I think we came up big.”
The longtime California rivals entered with 82 points apiece, one point behind Dallas and Phoenix in third place in the division. The Kings and Sharks, who are among six teams scrapping for three playoff spots, face each other in three of their final 10 games, finishing the regular season with a home-and-home set.
Marty Havlat had a goal and an assist, and Dan Boyle scored with 13:04 left in the Sharks’ eighth loss in 11 games. Antti Niemi stopped 37 shots for the Sharks, who followed up Monday’s embarrassing home loss to last-place Anaheim with an undisciplined third period down the coast.
”Because we had four lines and (the Sharks) played last night, we could push it a little bit,” Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said, noting the Kings could ”catch guys at the end of shifts, catch guys that played a lot, catch them a little bit tired, and we looked fresher. That was the difference.”
San Jose hasn’t led in five consecutive periods, and the Pacific’s longtime power is running out of time to get it together.
Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau both went scoreless for the second straight game for the back-to-back Western Conference finalists, who have earned seven consecutive playoff berths and four straight division titles. The Sharks dropped into a 10th-place tie with Calgary – yet they are also just three points out of the division lead.
”They were all over us in the second period and in our zone the whole time, and they just had better jump than we did – or desperation, probably,” Boyle said. ”I’m not saying we weren’t trying, I want to be clear on that, but they were probably trying harder. When you’ve got some guys going and others aren’t, that’s not going to work at this time of year.”
The Kings are in position to contend for just the second division title in the franchise’s 44-year history after another strong effort led by Kopitar, who scored a goal in his fourth consecutive game.
”They’re playing very well defensively,” Havlat said of the Kings. ”I don’t think they gave up any odd-man rushes, and that’s the most important thing right now. They always have three guys back, so it’s very tough to beat their defense, and their goalie has been great. But we were in the game until the last 10 minutes. We just have to focus on what we do. We have everything in our hands, so we just have to start winning.”
Richards got the Kings started late in the first period, breaking out on a 2-on-1 short-handed rush and firing a shot past Niemi for his 16th goal. Havlat evened it with his fourth goal in four games since returning from a 39-game absence with a hamstring injury.
Kopitar’s behind-the-net pass in the second period set up Martinez’s goal. The Sharks then lost discipline and took three straight high-sticking penalties early in the third period – and San Jose had another delayed penalty looming when Kopitar netted his team-leading 24th goal.
Boyle trimmed the lead back to one goal by finishing a tic-tac-toe play with 13:04 left, snapping a 16-game goal drought for the star defenseman – but a few shifts after Kopitar put a backhand off the post with less than 6 minutes to play, Penner slipped into the San Jose end and surprised Niemi with a low wrist shot.
NOTES: Martinez has two goals in three games after failing to score since Nov. 12. … San Jose has missed the playoffs just once since 1997. … Sutter coached his 900th NHL game, including 434 for the Sharks from 1997-2002. He also coached 42 Sharks playoff games.