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Kings Enjoying the Role of Stoppers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cloud that had hung over the Kings all season burst a week ago. Rob Blake, the team captain, the heart and soul of the defense, one of the only two links to the team’s glory years, was traded.

Those left behind could have been drenched in self-pity, could have believed those who said management had given up on this season, could have trudged onto the ice and skated out the schedule.

Instead, a season on the brink of disaster seemingly has been invigorated.

With goalie Felix Potvin, obtained in a trade two weeks ago, and winger Adam Deadmarsh and defenseman Aaron Miller, obtained in the Blake trade, bolstering their ranks, the Kings have put together a three-game winning streak since Blake’s departure.

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The most impressive of the three victories came Tuesday night at the Gaylord Entertainment Center, where the Kings beat the Nashville Predators, 2-1, in front of 16,337.

The victory moves the Kings (28-26-8-1) to within four points of the idle Edmonton Oilers for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. It also gives the Kings a three-point edge on Nashville (26-29-8-2).

The Kings did a lot of things right Tuesday night. They got a goal from Luc Robitaille, his team-leading 30th. They got a short-handed goal from Ziggy Palffy, his 29th goal of the season.

The Kings penalty-killing unit, worst in the league coming in, shut down the Predators on all three of Nashville’s power plays.

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But most importantly, the Kings continued to playing stifling defense. They have now given up only two goals since Blake left.

Tuesday, the Kings barely allowed the Predators a look at their goal until the final period. Nashville had only four shots in the first period, the same number in the second and finished with 21 to the Kings’ 32.

King Coach Andy Murray singled out defenseman Philippe Boucher on a night when the team’s defensive play was so exceptional.

So how have the Kings, stripped of their best defensive player, become such a defensive force?

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“Rob Blake was the ultimate team player,” Murray said. “We realize he’s not here. We’re missing the best defenseman in the league. We’d better pull together. It’s a matter of survival. We can’t look back and hope to see Rob Blake hammering one in from the blue line.”

Robitaille, the other link to the team’s successful seasons of a decade ago, is also under no illusions about what his team has lost.

“Nobody can replace Blakie,” said Robitaille, whose goal gave him 11 seasons with at least 30.. “But we’ve got to pick up the slack and we got two players in Deadmarsh and Miller who are very steady.”

The way the Kings were playing defense Tuesday, it looked as if Robitaille’s first-period goal might be enough for a victory.

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He got in when teammate Marko Tuomainen fed him from behind the net. Robitaille, stationed to the left of the Predator goal, saw a brief opening between Nashville goalie Mike Dunham and the left post. Robitaille fired and beat Dunham.

But in the third period, the Predators finally started to zero in on Potvin.

When Potvin blocked a shot with his chest, the puck rolled out to the left where Cliff Ronning jumped on it and lifted the puck over the fallen goalie with 7:51 to play.

King defenseman Mattias Norstrom was called for hooking two minutes later.

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But it was the Kings who cashed in the opportunity when Nashville defenseman Mark Eaton, trying a backhanded pass, put it in Palffy’s path.

“I just tried to read him,” Palffy said. “It was good luck for me. He put it on my stick and I had open ice.”

Palffy skated down the middle and ripped the puck between Dunham’s pads to turn the red light on with 4:08 to play.

With Blake gone, Murray has asked Robitaille if he wants to fill the role of team captain.

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“I told him yes,” Robitaille said.

But so far, Murray hasn’t bestowed the honor on Robitaille.

So far, Murray is reluctant to tinker with a team that suddenly seems to have 20 captains.


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