Wayne Gretzky, the most prolific scorer in NHL history, rarely displays any emotion after he scores a goal.
But Gretzky flashed a wide smile after his first goal of the season propelled the Kings to a 4-4 tie with the Hartford Whalers Wednesday night at the Hartford Civic Center.
“The way I look at it is that it’s nice to get it out of the way so I won’t have to talk about it anymore,” Gretzky said of his first goal in seven games. “I normally score a lot of goals, so I’m not really concerned. It’s just nice that it came at a good time.
“It wasn’t frustrating at all (not to score a goal). I felt the first five games I didn’t play very well. But I felt like I was beginning to come out of it, and I was going to have a good game the next game against San Jose and I was called away (after his father, Walter, suffered an aneurysm on Oct. 16).”
Off to the worst start of his career, Gretzky finally scored on a power-play goal, taking advantage of a pass from right wing Tomas Sandstrom with 2:36 left in the third period. It tied the score, 4-4, as the Kings overcame a 4-1 deficit.
“Wayne’s scored so many big goals that I don’t know how you can compare it to those,” King Coach Tom Webster said. “But when a guy hasn’t scored in six games, any time that you do score I think it’s uplifting.”
Gretzky almost scored again with 1:23 left in the third period, but he hit the side of the left post, just missing a wide-open right corner of the net. And Gretzky had another good chance on a breakaway with two seconds left in regulation, but the puck hit Hartford goalie Kay Whitmore in the shoulder.
“I really wasn’t sure how much time was left, because the new clock (which displays tenths of seconds in the final minute of each period) is very confusing,” Gretzky said. “It threw me for a second and I almost fell. I still got a pretty good shot, and Whitmore made a pretty good save.”
Playing his second game since returning to the team after a five-game absence while he maintained a vigil at the hospital bedside of his father, who underwent brain surgery on Oct. 19 in Hamilton, Canada, Gretzky had his best game of the season as the Kings stretched their unbeaten streak to three games (2-0-1).
Gretzky almost set up a goal by center Bob Kudelski with 1:08 left in the five-minute overtime period. Gretzky fed Kudelski, who had just come out of the penalty box, but Whitmore made a nice glove save.
“Wayne’s shooting the puck well, and that’s what I’m encouraged about,” Webster said. “If you’re shooting the puck, things will start to happen for you.”
The Kings gave Hartford eight consecutive power plays in the second and third periods and trailed, 4-1, in the second period.
However, the King penalty-killers gave up only one power-play goal while attempting to kill Frank Breault’s five-minute high-sticking penalty in the second period.
With the Kings killing a two-minute hooking penalty on left wing Luc Robitaille, center Randy Gilhen helped to ignite the comeback with a short-handed goal at 14:14 of the second period.
Gilhen spun around Whaler center John Cullen and put the puck between Whitmore’s legs to cut the deficit to 4-2.
“Any time you score a short-handed goal it’s always nice, because the other team’s got the advantage and is expected to score,” Gilhen said. “It can really pick your team up.”
Robitaille made it 4-3 when he scored his seventh goal of the season only 34 seconds into the third period. Skating on a line with Gretzky and right wing Jari Kurri, Robitaille took a pass from Kurri and put in a rebound.
And Gretzky tied it with his first goal.
“It was a real strong comeback,” said King goalie Kelly Hrudey, who made 25 saves. “That’s as good a character-building game as we’ve had all year.”
King defenseman Tim Watters, who returned to Los Angeles after spraining his left ankle in Monday’s 4-3 victory at Detroit, may be able to play Saturday night at Toronto. . . . Defenseman Brian Benning, sidelined for three games with a groin pull, could return to action when the Kings return home on Nov. 7 to face Vancouver. . . . Defenseman Rob Blake, out for nine games with a sprained right shoulder, and defenseman Jeff Chychrun, who hasn’t played this season because he’s recovering from wrist surgery, also could play against the Canucks.