What was billed and built up as a head-to-head battle between Wayne Gretzky of the Kings and Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins ended with an overtime goal, but not by Gretzky, nor Lemieux, nor any of the other Kings or Penguins who are crowding each other for room at the top of the National Hockey League scoring race.
It was Dave Taylor of the Kings who finally controlled the puck that was bouncing all over the ice and gave the Kings their 3-2 victory at the Forum Tuesday night.
Actually, once the teams were on the ice, the matchup was not between Gretzky and Lemieux at all, but between Gretzky and Pittsburgh goalie Tom Barrasso and between Lemieux and King goalie Kelly Hrudey.
Hrudey vs. the No. 1 scorer in the NHL. Barrasso vs. the No. 2 scorer in the NHL. Not to mention all the other guys who make these two teams the top scoring teams in the league.
And out of that, both goalies emerged with pride intact and goals-against averages intact? Who would ever have thought that the game would go into overtime with the score 2-2?
Well, it did. There were 16,005 witnesses, making up the 20th sellout of the season for the Kings, who never before had more than eight sellouts in a season. And the Tuesday night crowd increased the season’s total attendance to a record 515,942 with five home games remaining. The record of 504,817 was set during the 1974-75 season.
But the show wasn’t quite what they expected.
Lemieux did stretch his lead in the NHL scoring ranks to 171 with an assist and a goal on his second penalty shot of the season. And Gretzky added to his second-place total with two assists for 150 points.
But, as Lemieux said before the game: “I understand that the focus will be on the top scorers, that the media and the fans always put attention there. But, really, at this point in the season, the most important thing is to win league games.”
The Kings are in third place in the Smythe Division with a record of 35-27-6, just one point behind the Edmonton Oilers. Pittsburgh is still in the running for the top spot in the Patrick Division with a record of 33-27-7.
While the Kings were celebrating Taylor’s power-play goal, the Penguins left the ice in disbelief over the bench minor penalty that had given the Kings the advantage.
The Penguins were penalized because Bob Errey threw a water bottle at the Kings’ Luc Robitaille while play was stopped, so that the Penguin trainer could attend to Rob Brown--who was down on the ice after a collision with the Kings’ Bernie Nicholls.
Pittsburgh Coach Gene Ubriaco saw it this way: “There was a little bit of a fracas and Robitaille came over and speared Errey on the bench. Errey had the bottle and just threw it at him as he got speared, and I know the referee had to see it because he was standing back watching this whole thing.
“I didn’t think they were going to call anything, in overtime. They should have called two minutes each, if anything.”
Robitaille, of course, denied spearing Errey.
Until Taylor’s goal, the highlight of the night had been Lemieux’s penalty shot at 15:41 of the first period that gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead. The shot was awarded when the Kings’ Igor Liba reached out with his stick and pulled Lemieux to the ice as Lemieux was sprinting toward the net.
The fans were on their feet when Lemieux picked up the puck at the red line, took a little bit of an angle to the right, drew Hrudey toward the right, then put the puck between Hrudey’s pads.
Lemieux said: “I had a penalty shot against Kelly a couple of years ago in Long Island, and I just did the same move. I went between his legs. It worked again.”
Interestingly, Hrudey said, in crediting Lemieux for a nice shot, that he had never before seen that move.
Nicholls looked as if he had a new lease on life after he scored the goal that tied Marcel Dionne’s club record of 59 goals in a single season, set in 1978-79. Nicholls got No. 59 on a power play at 3:31 of the first period to give the Kings a 1-0 lead.
“Boy, I hope this means the slump is over,” Nicholls said. “I was starting to think all those ‘almost shots’ would never go in. I told you they’d start going in. Geez, I had a bunch more tonight that just missed. But, yes, I feel much better. I’m glad to get No. 59 over with.”
Jock Callander tied it, 1-1, directing in a shot by Lemieux to end Lemieux’s two-game scoreless streak--his longest ever. And then Lemieux scored his own goal, officially a short-handed goal, on his penalty shot.
Just 1 minute 22 seconds into the second period, Robitaille tied it, 2-2, for the Kings on another power-play goal.
“I think the fact that we had the Gretzky-Lemieux matchup added to the emotion of the game,” Taylor said. “We think we have the best player and I’m sure they think they have the best player. That kind of competition is just uplifting to everybody.”
The Kings signed free-agent center Chris Kontos, who was released by the Kings last summer, just before the Tuesday trading deadline. The Kings also traded John English and Brian Wilks to Edmonton for Alan May and Jim Wiemer; Tim Tookey to Pittsburgh for Pat Mayer, and signed John Miner to an American Hockey League contract.