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They Make Good Case for Defense

Say what you will about The Great One, Wayne Gretzky--and we’ll say this for him; he is the greatest--the fact remains that the Kings have gone from clowns to crown princes in the National Hockey League not just because of the guys scoring all the goals, but because of the guys preventing all the goals.

Hollywood’s hockey team is good box office, because it’s no longer gross in the nets.

Glenn Healy took a well-deserved night off Tuesday with the Montreal Canadiens in town, which gives you an idea how good the Los Angeles goaltending has become. Even against a club as good as Montreal’s, the Kings have complete confidence in any and all of their goalies, confidence they seldom had in previous seasons.

Healy happens to lead the NHL in victories, with 18. Give Gretzky almost all the credit in the world for reviving the Kings, but save at least a bit of credit for the men in the masks. “In the past, the Kings’ goaltending has taken a lot of heat,” Healy said. “I don’t know how many goalies they’ve gone through the last few years alone--13? 14? A lot of goalies, I know that.

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“You know the old saying how it’s easier to fire a coach than to fire 20 players? Well, before a coach goes, the goalie goes. That’s how it usually works, and that’s how it has been with the Kings.

“That’s why I’m glad things are going so well so far,” Healy said, with a laugh. “Maybe I can help save some jobs.”

Healy, 26, a second-year player out of Western Michigan, and Mark Fitzpatrick, who was a teen-ager until a few weeks ago, have made their presence felt on Forum ice every bit as much--OK, not quite, but almost--as Gretzky has. It takes more than offense to win hockey games, and the Kings’ defense has usually left a lot to be desired. Particularly, its goaltending.

Now, at last, the future seems to be in good gloves.

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“Hey, it takes six guys to get the puck in the net, and six guys to keep it out,” Healy said. “But, more and more, I have confidence in what I do, and I think they have more confidence in me. It was important for me to get off to a good start this year, from the first day of camp on, to convince everybody that I belonged.”

Why from the first day of camp? Because of who else was in camp. Because of that fateful day, Aug. 9, a day that will live forever in, well, fame.

“On Aug. 9, when they made The Trade,” Healy said, not needing to bother adding for whom the Kings traded, “the expectations for the club increased incredibly. We went from a club that had some decent prospects and a few experienced players to a club that people were going to have to take seriously.

“And now, they do. And I really like this feeling of the pressure being on us to win. That’s a new thing for Los Angeles, and it’s a real challenge. Instead of going to the arena wondering, ‘Do we stand a chance tonight?,’ we go to the arena knowing the other team is feeling the heat. Nobody underestimates us anymore. I wish somebody would underestimate us.

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“Guys from other clubs come up to me after games now and use words to characterize us like ‘awesome’ and ‘scary.’ I hope I’m not speaking out of turn, but I honestly believe teams are afraid of the Los Angeles Kings now.”

Certain games stand out in Healy’s mind, games that gave opponents ample proof that the Kings had come to life. There was that startling start against a hellacious schedule that opened on the road against Detroit, Calgary, the New York Islanders, Boston and Philadelphia, and then at home against Calgary and Edmonton. From the first night, when the Red Wings got routed--"We really gave Detroit a beating, really kicked em,” Healy said--the Kings’ reputation spread.

Healy particularly enjoyed a late-November game against New Jersey in which only one goal was scored halfway through the contest. Next thing anyone knew, the Kings were the winners, 9-3.

“That let people know in a hurry how potent we could be,” Healy said.

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Now, even on nights when they do not play so well, the Kings sometimes win. It used to be they had to play their absolute best to beat the best. The other night against those dirty rotten scoundrels from Calgary, it was difficult to tell the two clubs apart. If ever a bad team suddenly looked capable of becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender in one year, it was this team, Gretzky’s team.

“One of the impressive things about Calgary is, they might not have a Gretzky, but they’re deep at every position,” Healy said. “Two goaltenders, good scorers, maybe 10 good defensemen. All of a sudden, we’re becoming that kind of club. Three or four good lines, more than one capable goalie. You can’t just stop Gretzky’s line and beat the Kings.”

The first time the Kings faced the Flames, Healy faced 48 shots, and won in overtime.

“We’ve proven we can beat any club,” Healy said. “Winning the Stanley Cup is a realistic goal for us. I don’t think we’re being arrogant. Nobody’s that much better than us. Edmonton is certainly not the same team without Gretzky; that’s obvious, from the goal on. (Grant) Fuhr isn’t playing with the same confidence as before. Anybody can see that.

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“It means so much having Gretzky on the ice, and I think Edmonton is realizing that. No matter what the score is, you’ve always got a chance to come back and win.”

It doesn’t hurt any to know that, on most nights anyway, the King goalies aren’t going to make it tough on their team to come back. Gretzky is great, but having a goalie? That might be even greater.


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