Wayne Gretzky was skating in on an empty net in the final seconds of the hockey game when he suddenly slowed up, skated wide, waited for Bernie Nicholls to get into position and passed the puck over. Nicholls put it in to complete his hat trick.
“I knew when I saw how it was shaping up that I was going to get it,” Nicholls said. “Wayne knows what a thrill it is for a player to get a hat trick, and he’s not a selfish player. He’s a team player. That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
With that finishing touch, the Kings had a 7-4 victory over the Winnipeg Jets, their first road victory of the season, before a crowd of 14,306 that crunched through the early snow to the Winnipeg Arena Friday night.
It was Gretzky who had drawn the Jets’ biggest crowd of the season. The fans come to see him make those nice gestures, not just score goals.
Taking no bows for what he seemed to consider the only decent thing to do at the time, Gretzky said: “If it had been a 1-goal difference at that point instead of 2, I might have taken the shot myself or maybe passed it to Johnny (Tonelli), who was wide open. But we had a safe lead and Bernie had 2 goals. He deserved a chance to get a third.”
During a postgame radio interview, Nicholls joked that he was making sure that none of the trade rumors involving his name ever become more than rumors.
“I’m trying to boost up the price for all the other teams that want me,” he said with a grin.
The Kings improved to 6-4, and the Jets fell to 2-4-2.
Actually, the victory did not come as easily to the Kings as that last goal might make it seem. Until the third period, one of the best the Kings have played all season, the Jets were making a game of it.
Things weren’t looking too good for the Kings midway through the second period, right after left winger Luc Robitaille was bounced from the game on a high-sticking call and the Jets scored 2 quick goals to close within 4-3.
Robitaille couldn’t believe the call, because his stick wasn’t high. When it caught right winger Andrew McBain in the face, McBain was leaning over, lunging at the puck, and his face was no more than knee high.
“Everybody could see that it was an accident,” Robitaille said. “I was going for the puck. I was trying to lift his stick up. . . . If I had hit a puck at that level, there wouldn’t have been a high-sticking call. I guess it was because he obviously was cut.”
Obviously. He left the evidence all over the ice.
Before leaving to be stitched up, McBain put his hands on his knees and skated in a couple of little circles in front of the Jets’ bench, dramatically letting the blood drip.
McBain was able to play in the third period but was unable to comment afterward because of the stitches under his lip.
King Coach Robbie Ftorek wasn’t sure that the call should have been high-sticking, but he said it was a discretionary call. As for the automatic game misconduct, he said that he couldn’t argue with that, either. The league had ruled before the season that high-sticking would mean automatic ejection.
The Kings had taken a 4-1 lead early in the period on a goal by Robitaille, who scored on a rebound of a shot by Gretzky. But the penalty to Robitaille gave the Jets a two-man advantage, since Wayne McBean was already in the penalty box for interference.
At 10:47, defenseman Peter Taglianetti, playing his first game since having arthroscopic surgery on his knee, scored for the Jets. Then defenseman Fredrik Olausson scored his first goal of the season at 14:02 to bring the Jets within 4-3.
But toward the end of the period, King goalie Glenn Healy made a save that helped turn the momentum. Jet defenseman Randy Carlyle was threatening to tie the game, 4-4, when Healy came out and challenged him and got a pad in front of his shot.
The rebound sent the puck the other way, and Mike Krushelnyski eventually poked in a nice pass from Tonelli with 1:24 left in the period for a 5-3 lead.
Healy, who faced 37 shots for his fifth victory of the season, said, “It was a big play, because there’s a big difference between 4-4 and 5-3.”
Ftorek liked the way the Kings responded in the third period.
“The first two periods, we didn’t play as well as we could have,” he said. “But we came out in the third and played a solid game. We played together, and we played with a lot of intelligence.”
Or, as Healy put it: “We’ve known that our offense is very strong. But if we play with smarts, like we did in the third period, we can be very strong defensively, too.”
The Kings shut out the Jets in the period until Pat Elynuik scored with less than 2 minutes to play. But Bob Carpenter had extended the King lead to 6-3 at 10:23.
In the first period, Jet center Randy Gilhen scored the game’s first goal with less than 2 minutes played, but King defenseman Doug Crossman tied it at 3:14 with his first goal as a King.
Nicholls scored back-to-back goals to give the Kings a 3-1 lead before the period ended.
The hat trick was Nicholls’ third in Winnipeg, and he could offer no explanation for why he plays so well here. He did say that it’s important for him to keep contributing this way.
“We have Gretzky now, and in my opinion, he’s the greatest player to ever play the game, but we can’t expect him to do it all himself,” Nicholls said. “If we want to be effective, we’re all going to have to help.”
As for the way Gretzky helped out on his hat trick, Nicholls said, “I’ll thank him, of course.”
The NHL all-star ballots that will be distributed to fans at all 21 arenas between Nov. 1 and Jan. 1 will include the names of 3 Kings: Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille and Steve Duchesne. . . . Ron Duguay’s assist on Mike Krushelnyski’s goal in the second period gave Duguay his 600th point. . . . Before Gretzky came to town, the Jets’ biggest home crowd of the season had been 10,440 for Edmonton. . . . Gretzky has 23 points.