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Kings Have Enough Grit to Beat Florida : Hockey: Lacroix, Todd and Conacher get two goals, four points in 3-2 victory over Panthers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Kings used an unlikely source to defeat the team that had the NHL’s best record, the Florida Panthers--the fourth line of left wing Eric Lacroix, center Kevin Todd and right wing Pat Conacher.

Short on flash, but long on grit.

Combining for two goals and four points, the fourth-liners led the Kings to a 3-2 victory over the Panthers on Saturday night, along with the usual steadiness of goaltender Byron Dafoe, who made 32 saves.

The crowd of 13,346 at the Forum watched the Panthers (14-5-1) lose for the first time since Halloween as the Kings handed Florida its first loss in nine games. They had been on a 7-0-1 streak and goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck had been unbeaten in seven games, going 6-0-1.

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The Kings have put together their own solid stretch of hockey, with only one loss in seven games. And they are winning in a variety of ways, beating the Panthers without a point from Wayne Gretzky, who had six against the New York Islanders on Thursday.

Saturday, the offense came from another source. Todd, Conacher and Lacroix are known for different things but they share the same intangible quality of hustle. Todd, frequently used as a penalty-killer, scored a short-handed goal at 6:17 of the second period to break a 1-1 tie. He even survived a video replay review of the goal, when it was ruled that the puck went in the net before King left wing Dimitri Khristich knocked the net off its moorings.

Lacroix, known for receiving a wide variety of facial cuts as well as an ability to land anywhere and everywhere, assisted on what turned out to be the winning goal, setting up Conacher at the seven-minute mark of the third period to make it 3-1.

That’s the simple description.

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In fact, the assist was vintage Lacroix, coming as he was sitting on the ice, holding Panther defenseman Gord Murphy’s stick just behind Florida’s net. But despite sitting down, Lacroix managed to get his stick free and flicked the puck to Conacher, who beat Vanbiesbrouck with a shot from the base of the left circle.

It was an appropriate payoff for Conacher, who has been in and out of the lineup all season and was playing in his first game since Monday’s victory against the Mighty Ducks. He was then scratched for the games against Detroit and the Islanders.

Conacher, who scored the first goal 30 seconds into the season in the opener against Colorado, has made the most of his playing time with three goals and five points in 13 games. Lacroix has nine points in 16 games and Todd has 11 points in 19 games.

The Kings (10-5-5) were helped by their specialty teams--scoring once on the power play and adding a short-handed goal--as well as another solid performance by Dafoe, who won his seventh game of the season. For him, facing 34 shots was a relatively light night.

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His biggest save late in the game came with the Kings leading, 3-1, when he stopped a breakaway by right wing Scott Mellanby, the Panthers’ leading scorer. Florida made things tense with a power-play goal by Jesse Belanger with 1:01 remaining to pull to 3-2 but couldn’t tie it despite pulling Vanbiesbrouck for an extra attacker.

*

King Notes

Defenseman Sean O’Donnell, who has been a pleasant and steady surprise, was scratched from the lineup for the first time this season. O’Donnell, who has one assist in 19 games, holds a plus-13 defensive rating, best among King defensemen. Wayne Gretzky began Saturday’s game with a team-high plus-16 rating, just ahead of rookie right wing Vitali Yachmenev and O’Donnell at plus-13. The other healthy scratches were right wing Troy Crowder and center Robert Lang, who has no goals and five assist. . . . As expected, goaltender Kelly Hrudey was activated off injured reserve after Saturday’s game and rookie goaltender Jamie Storr was officially assigned to the Kings’ International Hockey League affiliate in Phoenix.

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