The Kings tried everything they could to solve the puzzle known as Arturs Irbe, firing 37 shots on goal. But on Friday night the bouncing pucks skittered through the crease safely out of danger or clanged off the posts.
Not only was the San Jose goaltender "like wall," as he describes himself, he had some help and a bit of luck when the Kings appeared on the verge of cracking through it. Irbe, who had missed two games because of a sprained right arch, recorded the sixth shutout of his NHL career and second of the season in a 2-0 victory over the Kings before 16,005 at the Forum.
The loss was the first for the Kings (4-6-3) in five games after they completed a four-game trip, going 2-0-2. Home games have proved to be more of a problem; they have won only twice in eight games at the Forum. Irbe's shutout was the first time the Kings have been blanked since March 9, 1994 when Chicago goaltender Ed Belfour did the honors.
They were booed off the ice that night, and it happened again on Friday.
"That's the best our defense has ever played against San Jose," King Coach Barry Melrose said. "They had only two outnumbered chances against us, and they came on the same shift. The kids all played hard."
Strangely, defense had been the big concern for the Kings with veterans Rob Blake, Marty McSorley, Michel Petit and Tim Watters all out of the lineup with groin injuries. But the Sharks had limited scoring opportunities, managing only 19 shots on goal.
The game-winner, a short-handed goal, came on one of the outnumbered attacks by San Jose as right wing Ulf Dahlen finished off a three-on-one, making it 1-0 at 4:18 of the first period with his third goal of the season when King defenseman Darryl Sydor got caught up ice. Defenseman Michal Sykora flipped a backhand pass to Dahlen, who was alone at the left crease and easily beat King goaltender Kelly Hrudey.
Irbe and the Sharks had to kill off a penalty for having too many men on the ice at 17:07 of the third and the Kings were able to pull Hrudey for a six-on-four advantage but could not pull even. With the Kings pressing, the Sharks got their second goal on an empty-netter by Jamie Baker with seven-tenths of a second remaining.
"That's the ultimate definition of stealing two points on the road," San Jose Coach Kevin Constantine said. "We'll take the two and try to regroup. There wasn't anything good and we played a little too risky and with a lack of a lot of focus."
Melrose pointed out it was a typical Irbe performance against the Kings, saying: "I've never seen a (bad) one. That's just how he plays. He's been probably pulled the last four times. You've just got to make a good play to beat him, and we were hitting the posts."
Meanwhile, the dizzying pace of King trades continued Friday with left wing Mike Donnelly going to the Dallas Stars for a fourth-round draft pick in 1996. In a one-week stretch, the Kings have made three trades involving a total of nine players and two future draft choices.
Donnelly, who scored 79 goals in the last three seasons, had been the latest occupant of Melrose's doghouse with two points in nine games, having been scratched for three consecutive games.
"I knew it was going to happen because I asked to be traded in Detroit," Donnelly said. "The main thing is playing. I can't be sitting around. I feel I'm good enough to play and help someone. I really feel I'm good enough to be here and playing on a regular basis."
Evidently, the Stars still think Donnelly can contribute, planning to put him on their No. 1 line with Mike Modano and Russ Courtnall. There was said to be no interest in Donnelly around the league with the exception of Dallas.
Part of the move was for financial reasons. Donnelly, making $725,000, was set to earn $775,000 next season and $800,000 in the final year of his contract, which he signed last summer.
"It wasn't a financial decision, and it was, if you know what I mean," King General Manager Sam McMaster said. "I couldn't afford to have him sitting in the stands. For me to put him in the stands at 31, you just can't do it."