With an impressive 4-2 victory over the Edmonton Oilers Saturday night at the Forum, the Kings served notice that they will be conceding nothing to the defending Stanley Cup champions when they meet again in the National Hockey League playoffs that are just around the corner.
The Kings will be meeting the defending champions in the first round of the playoffs, which open in a little more than a week. That much has been decided already. But the battle for second place in the Smythe Division and the home-ice advantage that comes with it rages on.
The victory Saturday, the Kings’ third in a row over the team that traded them Wayne Gretzky last August, evened the season series at 4-4 and put the Kings alone in second place in the division, two points ahead of the Oilers.
The Kings improved to 39-31-6, and the Oilers dropped to 37-33-8. The Kings have four games to play, the Oilers just two.
So the Kings took a giant step forward in a key game, one that Gretzky was calling “the biggest of the year.”
“Home-ice advantage is important,” Gretzky said. “The thing is, they can win in our rink and we can win in their rink--although theirs is about the toughest there is--but if we have a seventh game, we want it in our own rink. It makes a difference then. That’s why you play 80 games.”
Down the hall, Oiler Coach Glenn Sather was acknowledging the Kings’ streak of victories and the Kings’ edge in the race for second place. And he was trying to lay claim to the underdog role.
Said Sather: “Wayne’s done a lot for these guys. They’re really playing. They just look like they want it more. It’s the first time around for some of those guys, and there’s not much more you can say than that.”
Marty McSorley, another King who has won a couple of rings with the Oilers, knows how Sather works.
With a smile and a nod, McSorley said: “Sure, Glenn Sather is going to want to say they’re the underdogs now. He wants to put the pressure on us. . . . But that team, with the talent they have, is not an underdog in any hockey game.”
That is not to say that the Kings think they should be the underdogs.
The Kings and the Oilers have, among them, five of the league’s top 10 scorers. The Kings have No. 2 Gretzky, No. 4 Bernie Nicholls and No. 10 Luc Robitaille, and the Oilers have No. 8 Jimmy Carson and No. 9 Jari Kurri. And everybody’s list of top goalies includes both the Oilers’ Grant Fuhr and the Kings’ Kelly Hrudey.
The win Saturday went to Hrudey, with a lot of help from his friends.
Besides keeping the Oilers out of his territory, his teammates gave Hrudey some breathing room early by jumping to a 4-0 lead. And then they helped him keep the puck out of the net over the last 1 minute 38 seconds, when the Oilers not only had the power play but also pulled Fuhr, allowing them to attack six on four.
Nicholls dazzled the sellout crowd of 16,005 twice in the first period, scoring first on a power play and then on a shorthanded breakaway.
The goals were Nos. 66 and 67 of the season for Nicholls, who keeps adding to his club record.
McSorley had put the power-play unit on the ice for the first time by taking a sharp elbow to the head from Oiler defenseman Jeff Beukeboom. The hit knocked McSorley’s helmet off and sent him crashing into the boards in front of the Oiler bench as he raced up his left wing side, but he waited for the whistle.
After one quick trip into their own end to retrieve the puck, the Kings spent almost all of their two minutes in a relentless attack on Fuhr, who made at least three brilliant stops before the quick-passing offense of the Kings finally overcame the outnumbered Oilers. The last series of passes went from Steve Duchesne to Igor Liba to Nicholls, who fired the puck in from the left side.
Fuhr was beaten on two good plays and yet stopped 22 shots in the first period. Hrudey faced only seven in the period.
The Kings’ lead went to 3-0 in the second period when Steve Kasper skated down the right side, swept around the bottom of the faceoff circle and fired at Fuhr point-blank. It went to 4-0 later in the period when Mike Krushelnyski used a give-and-go play with Nicholls to put himself in front of Fuhr, where he deked right and flipped the puck into the left corner.
At 16:23 of the second period, the Oilers finally got their first goal when defenseman Charlie Huddy passed the puck across the front of the goal to Jari Kurri. King defenseman Tim Watters blocked the pass, but before he could control the puck, Kurri had picked it up and put it past Hrudey.
As the third period opened, the Kings still had 43 seconds left on a two-minute bench minor penalty, picked up by the Oilers for unsportsmanlike conduct at the end of the second. But it was the Oilers’ Mark Messier who scored just 16 seconds into the period, getting the shorthanded goal by rushing straight at Hrudey and lifting the puck over Hrudey’s stick and between his pads.
But all that was too little, too late after the Kings’ strong start.
The Oilers’ Kevin Lowe, who was sitting out the game with a suspension, was heading back to his seat in the press section Saturday night when a King fan made a remark to him that caused him to shove the fan. The fan fell on the steps and decided not to take Lowe up on his invitation to hit him. Later, however, other fans in the same group, seated just a few rows behind Lowe, continued to shout at him and challenge him until police escorted them out. . . . Three Kings missed Saturday’s game because of suspensions: Jay Miller, out for one game on a game misconduct; Ken Baumgartner, out for two games as a result of his fourth game misconduct, and John Tonelli, out one game for his second stick infraction, a spearing foul Thursday night at Calgary.