Column: Win bolsters Kings’ playoff aspirations
This was a game the Kings should have won, and they did. The Calgary Flames were missing their top three scorers and were spiraling out of playoff contention because of the five-game losing streak they brought to Staples Center on Monday. That gave the Kings a chance to pick up ground in the excruciatingly tight West playoff scramble without having to deal with the nastiness of Matthew Tkachuk (injured), the skill of Sean Monahan (also injured) and the finesse of Johnny Gaudreau, who was given leave to be with his ailing father.
As has happened so often this season nothing came easily to the Kings, and their loss of defenseman Jake Muzzin to an upper-body injury after a second-period hit looms as a potential problem. But the 3-0 victory that put them back in a playoff position as the first West wild card — at least temporarily — should stand as a strong reminder of how greatly magnified even the smallest play can become when the season is on the line.
After the team’s morning skate Monday, coach John Stevens emphasized the need to pay attention to detail because a seemingly routine play can quickly trigger a game-changing moment. “Every puck battle can make a difference, every blocked shot, every faceoff situation,” he said. “The margin for error this time of year is very fine and we want to make sure we’re maximizing our ability to manage games and taking care of things from our end.”
His point was proven a few hours later as the Kings scored three power-play goals in support of Jonathan Quick’s 23-save performance and fifth shutout this season. With 91 points in 77 games the Kings are even with the Ducks in points but the Ducks hold third place in the Pacific because they’ve played one fewer game. The Kings edged ahead of the Colorado Avalanche (90 points in 76 games) and St. Louis Blues (89 points in 75 games) while sealing Calgary’s playoff elimination.
“It’s the little things that put together the big picture,” Anze Kopitar said. “That was the difference tonight, really.”
On the first goal, with Calgary’s Sam Bennett serving a penalty, Adrian Kempe won an offensive-zone faceoff from Troy Brouwer. As Kempe drew the puck back to the left point, Tyler Toffoli slid behind Calgary defenseman Mark Giordano to stand in front of Flames goaltender Mike Smith and screen Smith. Kings defenseman Dion Phaneuf took a hard shot that Toffoli jumped to avoid, and the puck got past Smith at 4:04 of the second period. “I think Toff might have got it, or he’s the main reason why we got it,” Phaneuf said after he was credited with his first goal since Feb. 20. “They’ve got a good goaltender over there and we talked about getting traffic on him.”
The Kings extended their lead to 3-0 at 8:24 of the third, with Giordano in the penalty box. Kopitar faked a shot but instead passed down low to Carter, who put it away for his 10th goal of an injury-interrupted season. “The third one was maybe a little bit more fancy, with good passing,” Kopitar said. “At the end of the day, we’re directing pucks toward the net and that’s what you want to do.”
This is all good, but the Kings have now alternated wins and losses for 13 straight games. They haven’t won two in a row since Feb. 27 and March 1, the last two victories of a three-game winning streak. Four of their last five games are at home; the exception is Friday at Anaheim, which is often dominated by Kings fans when the Kings and Ducks meet there. The Kings can’t afford to continue their up-and-down pattern or they risk being on the down side when the regular season ends April 7.
“I guess this time of year it doesn’t really matter how you do it,” Kopitar said. “We’ve got to figure out ways to win. And we did tonight.”
Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen
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