Those cheery vibes the Kings earned for the Christmas break were tossed aside like torn gift-wrapping paper halfway into the game.
The Arizona Coyotes were under their skin in the form of Nick Cousins, who tried to take out the legs of goalie Jonathan Quick and soon got into an animated tussle and shouting match with Austin Wagner that lasted all the way to the penalty boxes in a second period going nowhere for the Kings.
It turned out to be the fire they needed to keep this midseason push burning Thursday. Dustin Brown scored 17 seconds into the third period and the Kings won their fourth straight game 2-1 at Staples Center.
Brown lifted the puck up and off goalie Darcy Kuemper from the right side on a simple rush play. Coupled with Jake Muzzin’s fluky first-period goal, the Kings continued to dig even though they remain in last place in the Western Conference.
“We’ve put ourselves in a pretty big hole,” Brown said. “I think it’s more important for our group, especially with the young guys on our team, to understand how we need to play to win. We didn’t do it for a big stretch of games early [in the season]. I thought tonight was not our best game, but it’s more important that we start to learn.”
Their longest win streak since last December happened without Jeff Carter, who was ruled out with an upper-body injury and deemed day-to-day.
“I don’t know what happened for sure,” coach Willie Desjardins said. “But it wasn’t anything major. It wasn’t that he was doing anything. He just tweaked it a little bit.”
Instead, Brown, Muzzin and Quick helped squeak out a low-scoring game. Muzzin’s pinball shot tied it 1-1. Set up by Brendan Leipsic, Muzzin shot a puck that deflected off the sticks of Cousins and Josh Archibald and then off the helmet of Niklas Hjalmarsson before it trickled into the net.
Quick made saves on Clayton Keller twice in the final minute, with Kuemper pulled for an extra attacker. It made the earlier incident with Cousins an afterthought, but Wagner took it seriously at the time.
“I was just trying to let him know that it’s not acceptable to go after Quickie there, and I think he got the message,” Wagner said. “I didn’t like how he clipped Quickie there. If it wasn’t going to be a fight, it might have been a hard hit or something like that.”
The Kings had otherwise played a fine first period largely muffled by Kuemper’s 12 saves and Jakob Chychrun’s power-play goal on a wrist shot that beat Quick high.
Clifford got an assist, his 100th career point, on Muzzin’s goal as he and Wagner returned from injuries that required concussion protocol.
Clifford missed seven games because of a hit by Pierre-Edouard Bellemare of the Vegas Golden Knights. Clifford didn’t comment on the hit, in which there was no penalty or supplemental discipline, only to say that he’s been “ready for a while” but he understood the protocol.
Wagner missed one game because of a hit from Erik Karlsson of the San Jose Sharks that resulted in a two-game suspension for Karlsson.
“He tried to make a clean hit and sometimes that’s what happens when you get hit,” Wagner said before the game. “He wasn’t intentionally aiming for my head or anything like that. He’s not that type of player. But he unfortunately connected with it. But I’m all good.”