Two weeks ago, the vultures were circling over the Kings . . . and so was Mike Milbury's plane.
But after the courtship of Milbury became public, King Coach Barry Melrose's greatest fears of desertion were allayed by his own players. After the Kings beat the Calgary Flames, 5-3, on Tuesday night at the Olympic Saddledome to climb into second place in the Pacific Division and sixth in the Western Conference, Melrose openly spoke about that period.
"This team has stayed in the hunt," he said. "They could have gotten the coaching staff all fired during the Milbury (episode). I'm very proud of the guys that day, they rallied around me.
"Whatever happens, wherever I am next year, I'll be proud of these guys. They had the chance to quit, to get rid of me. That's a coaches' nightmare when you give them an opportunity to get rid of you. But this group has battled."
Wayne Gretzky, who had three assists against the Flames, noticed a difference in Melrose.
"There was a calming effect when Barry took the bull by the horns," he said. "And the players followed his lead. "The coach sets the tone and he relaxed and so did the guys. The players got together and we knew we were all on the hot seat together."
After everything that has happened, the Kings (11-14-6) are amazingly only seven points out of first place in the division behind Calgary, despite having won only three games at home.
Right wing Rick Tocchet got to the point, saying: "Thank God for this division. I'm the first guy to say it."
The Kings, who have lost only once on the road in their last seven games, crawled into a defensive shell during the third period after taking a 4-2 lead. They tied a club record for fewest shots on goal in a period as the Flames outshot them, 13-1, in the third.
But the one shot went in, as Pat Conacher scored an empty-netter with 1:17 remaining. Nice shooting percentage. At one point, the Flames had 16 consecutive shots on goal before Conacher's goal, which was his second of the game and sixth of the season.
King goaltender Kelly Hrudey, perhaps playing his best hockey of his career recently, faced 41 shots and won his 10th game of the season. Tocchet added one goal (his 16th) and two assists, and Dan Quinn had one goal and two assists.
It was suggested to Melrose that the team simulate road conditions when it returns home. Maybe sequester them in a hotel?
Melrose laughed, saying: "No, then you keep losing them, like on a jury. Like one or two a night. We can't have that."
Defenseman Arto Blomsten, who was acquired Tuesday from Winnipeg for an eighth-round draft pick, appeared in one game for the Jets this season and 18 in 1993-94, recording two assists and six penalty minutes. The 30-year-old is 6-3, 210 pounds, and played 10 seasons for the Swedish team Djurgarden. This season, he had 19 points in 27 games with Springfield of the American Hockey League. . . . Defenseman Michel Petit played despite a morning trip to the hospital where he received a shot to quell a troublesome rash, which started on the plane ride to Calgary after Sunday's game against San Jose. . . . Five seconds into the game, King enforcer Troy Crowder departed after receiving a five-minute major penalty for fighting and a match penalty for kneeing Calgary's Paul Kruse. Any match penalty is subject to automatic review by the league.