For weeks now, Wayne Gretzky has diligently attended team practices.
But in mind, he has been nearly 3,000 miles away, thinking constantly of his 53-year-old father, Walter, who has been undergoing slow but steady rehabilitation since he suffered a brain aneurysm in mid-October.
After scoring three goals Saturday night to lead his Kings to a 6-4 victory over the San Jose Sharks at the Forum, Gretzky acknowledged that he has paid the price for his preoccupation.
“If I have a couple more games like tonight, I’ll be back to where I should be,” he said.
“I’m back in a groove, and I’m playing much better because my mind is at practice. When you’re not as strong as you should be at practice, when game time comes, you’re not ready. Practices are important.”
Gretzky said his father is making progress.
“He’s coming along,” the King center said. “He has trouble with his short-term memory. When I talk to him on the phone, he doesn’t know everything, but he knows some things.”
The hat trick, Gretzky’s sixth as a King and 49th of his career, gives him nine goals in 18 games.
Thanks in large measure to Gretzky, the Kings had a 5-0 lead in the third period. Against an expansion team that has won only three games all season, the Kings figured to coast the rest of the way.
The Sharks struck quickly and often, turning a rout into a nail-biter that was finally decided by the width of one of the goal posts.
The Sharks cut the margin to 5-3 and were looking for more when Pat Falloon’s shot hit the right post on the Kings’ net. King defenseman Brian Benning controlled the puck, whipped it down the ice and Bob Kudelski and Randy Gilhen completed a two-on-one rush at the other end to push the Kings out of harm’s way, Gilhen scoring his third goal at 14:05.
Dean Evason completed the scoring with his second goal of the night.
In winning their third consecutive game, the Kings improved to 11-7-5. The Sharks fell to 3-20-1.
The Kings dominated early but couldn’t put the Sharks away. San Jose got the game’s first shot on goal, then the Kings reeled off 16 in a row. The Kings extended their edge to 18-2 and finished the period with a 19-6 advantage.
When Kudelski got his 10th goal and Tomas Sandstrom added his sixth to increase the Kings’ lead to 5-0 early in the third period, the only remaining question, it seemed, was how many from the sellout crowd of 16,005 would stay to watch the end.
But the Sharks quickly put people back in their seats by reeling off three goals on seven shots in only 2 minutes 40 seconds.
The goals came from:
--Evason, his third of the season off a rebound at 6:05.
--Doug Wilson, his first at 6:38, sliding the puck through the crease and past goalie Daniel Berthiaume.
--Perry Anderson, his third at 8:45, the puck caroming by Berthiaume off Anderson’s skate.
Although the Sharks outshot the Kings, 15-7, in that final period, the Kings had the overall edge, 39-29.
And, for the second consecutive game, they scored two power-play goals after getting only one in 17 attempts over three games.
King defenseman Marty McSorley missed his first game of the year because of a throat infection. . . . The Sharks’ injury list remains long. Expected to be out at least a week are goalies Brian Hayward (back spasms) and Jarmo Myllys (bruised hand), and forwards Kelly Kisio (sprained ankle), Wayne Presley (bruised knee) and Tony Hrkac (broken wrist). . . . Defenseman Doug Wilson played for the second consecutive night after missing 10 games because of a dislocated thumb.