With just a few more minutes of concentrated defense, the Kings could have beaten the Winnipeg Jets. With a victory, the Kings would have wrapped up second place in the Smythe Division and home ice for the first round of the playoffs.
That done, the Kings should have been able to coast through tonight’s game against the Jets and the weekend games against Vancouver, resting up and saving energy for the playoffs.
Could have, would have, should have. . . . But, no.
The Kings let another one get away. The Kings played their fifth straight overtime game against the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night, finishing, 3-3. They played to their fourth straight tie against the team that is in last place in the Smythe Division and play no role except spoiler in the jockeying for playoff advantage.
Before a crowd of 15,038 at the Forum, the Kings twice seemed to have the game in hand and twice let the Jets back in.
A two-point victory would have settled the question of whether the Kings or the Edmonton Oilers will have home ice for the playoffs. The one-point tie just prolonged the question.
As King Coach Robbie Ftorek said: “We’ve got three games to get a point.”
No doubt they’ll get it. But the lack of finishing power against a team like Winnipeg doesn’t say too much for the Kings.
Ftorek chalks up the stand-off status of the two teams to the fact that each team is confident it can score against the other; each team is confident it can win on the other’s home ice; each team is confident it can beat the other and therefore plays until the final horn.
But that doesn’t explain how the Kings ever let the Jets build that kind of confidence in the first place. Or why the Kings didn’t have the intensity or the effort needed to take care of business Tuesday night.
Wayne Gretzky broke a 2-2 tie with his power play goal at 10:51 of the third period, giving the Kings would what looked to be the game winner until Brad Jones tied it for the Jets one more time with a slap shot from the top of the left circle at 15:46.
The Kings’ Kelly Hrudey had a shutout going into the third period, when he gave up back-to-back goals to Dale Hawerchuk.
The first came 39 seconds into the third period. Iain Duncan fought for the pick along the boards and centered a pass to Hawerchuk, who flipped the puck past Hrudey. The second, at 8:21, Hawerchuk scored as he made a wide sweep in front of the Kings’ net with Doug Crossman hot on his trail.
For Winnipeg, goalie Bob Essensa, a 24-year-old goalie called up in February from the Fort Wayne Komets of the International Hockey League, held his own in his first appearance against the Kings. Essensa gave up three goals, but he faced 42 shots to the 32 faced by Hrudey.
Essensa held the Kings without a goal in the first period, but he gave up two in the second, the first to Dave Taylor just 22 seconds into the period, and the second to Steve Duchesne on power play at 16:10.
Duchesne, in his third season with the Kings, fired a long slapshot through traffic to become the highest-scoring defenseman in Kings’ history.
At the end of two periods, Essensa had already faced 30 shots.
Ftorek said: “He made some big plays. But, also, we didn’t get the puck upstairs the way we needed to do against him. He gave up one on the soft shot, the changeup, by Wayne. And one to Duchesne on the screen. But we didn’t do against him what our scouting report said we should do.”
Hrudey, one of the very few Kings who chose to face the media instead of worsening the local drought situation by taking endless showers, admitted that he was disappointed to have let a victory get away.
But, Hrudey said: “We didn’t lose, and we played well. Until we clinch, that’s the only time we will feel satisfied.
“I was very impressed with their goalie. I always hate to play a team that’s been eliminated, because they are always so loose.”
And Winnipeg gets to be loose again tonight while the Kings watch their opportunities to clinch second place count down.
With his goal in the second period Tuesday night, Steve Duchesne has 54 in his career. That passes the club record for Kings defensemen set by Mark Hardy at 53. . . . The Kings have completed the season series with 18 of the 20 other teams in the league and have a record of 11-5-2 in those series. . . . Saturday night’s game against Vancouver (the Kings’ last home game of the regular season) is already sold out, but there are tickets remaining for tonight’s game against the Jets. . . . With three games left in the regular season it is unlikely that Wayne Gretzky will not be passing Gordie Howe’s record for all-time scoring this season. After picking up a goal and two assists Tuesday night, Gretzky has 1,833 points. Howe’s record is 1,850.