Wayne Gretzky blocked a Buffalo shot, and the puck bounced to mid-ice, where Bernie Nicholls controlled it and started sprinting toward the Sabres’ goal.
Nicholls made the perfect pass, floating the puck out in front of Gretzky, who picked it up and skated in. Then it was just Wayne Gretzky against Jacques Cloutier.
Gretzky won, flipping the puck over the fallen goalie and into the back of the net to give the Kings a 5-4 victory over the Sabres and bring the 15,581 fans at the Forum to their feet Saturday night.
The King fans had waited so long for that goal.
There had been several Gretzky vs. Cloutier battles, and Cloutier had won all the others. When Gretzky took his final shot, with 4 minutes 3 seconds left in the game, he had neither a goal nor an assist to show for the game.
But then he came through with the game-winner.
“I had missed on a couple good chances against Cloutier earlier, especially in tight,” Gretzky said. “So that time I held on to the puck for an extra second. I knew that he’d dive, so I waited for that. At least, I was hoping that he would make that same move, and he did.”
“He made a great move to get the winner,” said Nicholls, who finished with 2 goals--giving him 23 for the season, most in the Natonal Hockey League--and 2 assists. “That’s why he gets paid all that money. I wouldn’t want to have anybody else be the one with the breakaway in that situation.”
The Kings (13-7) wrapped up the 5-game home stand with a 4-1 record. The Sabres, who lost their third in a row, fell to 8-11-2.
Cloutier had come into the game in relief of Daren Puppa, who gave up 3 goals on 6 shots in the first 12 minutes of the first period. But things started looking up for the Sabres once he took over, and they rallied from a 3-0 deficit to tie the game in the second period and again in the third before Gretzky’s game-winner.
Cloutier was making his first appearance with the Sabres this season. He was with their Rochester affiliate until last week, when the Sabres traded goalie Tom Barrasso to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Against the Kings, Cloutier faced 32 shots and gave up 2 goals.
“Their goalie switch was a great move,” Nicholls said. “He came in and made some really great saves. He made a couple on me. He stoned us for a while and allowed them to come back.”
In the first period, Steve Duchesne scored first for the Kings, taking a pass from Nicholls just as Doug Crossman was coming out of the penalty box. Duchesne beat Puppa on the glove side, putting the puck in the upper left corner of the net at 7:36.
Luc Robitaille made it 2-0 at 8:50 on a breakaway goal that started out as a 2-on-1 break before Nicholls and former King Larry Playfair collided. And Nicholls made it 3-0 by scoring at 11:55 on a pass from Robitaille, who had controlled the rebound of a shot by Dave Taylor off the right post.
That was it for Puppa.
King goalie Glenn Healy hurt himself with just 24 seconds remaining in the period when he came out of the crease to pass the puck out of his territory. The pass was intercepted and sent back past him by Sabre Pierre Turgeon, cutting the Kings’ lead to 3-1.
Buffalo tied it, 3-3, in the second period on a short-handed goal by left wing Benoit Hogue at 7:14 and a shot by Mike Hartman from the left face-off circle at 15:28.
But Nicholls wasted no time getting the lead back for the Kings, scoring his second goal and 23rd of the season at 16:11 to make it 4-3.
Just 1:42 into the third period, Hogue scored his second goal of the night to tie it again, coming out of a face-off in the right circle to beat Healy. But Gretzky, with help from Nicholls, put the Kings ahead to stay. Asked if he had thought before the season began that he would be leading the National Hockey League in goals, Nicholls said: “If someone told me that before the season, I would have laughed.”
He’s not laughing now. He’s just enjoying it.
“I’m in a groove where things are going good. . . . Plus I’m playing with some great players, and that makes a big difference.”
The point he picked up on that last assist was an easy one.
“We had a 4 on 4, and Wayne blocked a (Sabre) shot,” Nicholls said. “I don’t know why he blocked it, but it deflected off him and came to me. I just made the pass back to him and just skated behind him to watch. There are not many guys who are going to catch Wayne when he has open ice like that.”
The Kings had a 2-minute power play at 12:53 when Sabre right wing Jan Ludvig jumped on defenseman Tom Laidlaw’s back right in front of the Kings’ bench and right in front of referee Bob Hall.
But the Sabres managed to kill that penalty, and the game remained tied--temporarily.
Goalie Mark Fitzpatrick, who won the only game he has played for the Kings (at Chicago Nov. 6), is being brought back up from New Haven, Conn. He’ll join the team in Philadelphia Monday. Backup goalie Bob Janecyk, who gave up 2 goals in 30 minutes in relief of Glenn Healy last Tuesday, is being sent back down. . . . Wayne McBean, who has been sitting out with a groin injury, is being sent to New Haven for conditioning.
Bernie Nicholls leads the Kings in scoring with 23 goals and 23 assists for 46 points. Mario Lemieux of Pittsburgh leads the league with 52 points. Nicholls has scored a goal in 8 straight games and at least a point in 15 straight. . . . Wayne Gretzky extended his point-scoring streak to 20 games in a row. . . . The Kings will play their next 4 games on the road, starting Tuesday night at Philadelphia.