The Pacific Division is a bit like a musical chairs game right now with a number of teams battling for that last chair that will put them into the post-season. When the LA Kings woke up Saturday morning, they held the final Wild Card spot in the Division, but by the time they took the ice at Staples Center last night, the Winnipeg Jets had reclaimed that spot by virtue of their win over the Vancouver Canucks. Backs against the wall again, the Kings fought to reclaim their spot, in a tight match with the Colorado Avalanche from which they emerged winners in a 3-1 contest, and the Jets found themselves standing next to the chair once more.
The game completed the Kings’ season sweep of the Avs and tied the team’s record, set back in 1994, for the lowest number of shots on goal allowed by an opponent. The Avs managed just 10 shots on Jonathan Quick, only one of which went into the net.
In the first period, the Kings dominated the puck possession game and scored the first goal when Jeff Carter used his trademark speed to get down the ice past the Avs defenders, banking a shot off the pads of Semyon Varlamov sending a juicy rebound directly to left-winger Dwight King who popped in his 12th goal of the season for a 1-0 lead.
Having managed only three shots on goal in the first, the Avalanche came back in the second. Just a little over one minute in, Gabriel Landeskog’s shot was mishandled by Quick, and teammate Ryan O’Reilly was right behind to knock in the puck and tie the game at 1-1.
But the Kings took over thereafter, limiting the Avs to just four shots in the second, and taking back the lead at 10:09 when defenseman Alec Martinez – no stranger to game-clinching goals – popped in the eventual game-winner not once but twice. His first shot, which hit the far corner and dropped into the goal before bouncing out, was at first wave off by the referee so Martinez, as he explained in a post-game interview, went after the rebound and put the puck right back in just “for good measure”. This time, there was no doubt and the Kings took a 2-1 lead heading into the third.
With a tenuous one-goal lead, the third period was nerve-racking for fans, but the Kings continued to limit the Avs’ opportunities and play the type of game they’ve become known for – hard-checking and puck-possessing. The Kings’ fourth line with center Nick Shore and wingers Kyle Clifford and Jordan Nolan, seemed particularly effective at cycling in the offensive zone.
Finally, with just under two minutes left in the period, the Kings got the insurance goal they needed when Varlamov, who had started to come out of his crease and head for the bench, was forced back into his goal by a breaking Marion Gaborik who took a long wrist shot from the top of the left circle that beat Varlamov.
It was a win the Kings needed and one they could be proud of in a number of ways. Beyond limiting their opponent to just 10 shots while registering 26 shots themselves, the Kings took only one penalty in the game, blocked 15 shots and delivered 28 hits including a hard check by Robyn Regehr on Cody McLeod. In fact, Regehr – who was recently named a nominee for the NHL’s 2015 Masterton trophy, awarded annually to a player who “best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey” – was named the third star of the night. Regehr racked up two assists, showing that he could move from his usual stay-at-home, hard-hitting role to joining the rush and creating offensive opportunities. Martinez took the second star, while Jeff Carter, continuing his excellent play of late, was the first star. Carter had two assists in the game, bringing his total assists for the season to 32.
While emerging victorious from the game and taking back the Wildcard spot in the West, the Kings will battle to the end for a playoff spot. They head out on the road with four games total remaining and all against Divisional opponents beginning with Vancouver on Monday, Edmonton on Tuesday and a critical match-up with Calgary on Thursday. They’ll return home for their final game of the regular season next Saturday against rivals, the San Jose Sharks, who with a loss to Arizona last night, seem destined to miss the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Get ready for the next – and final – round of musical chairs.