After nearly 56 minutes brimming with saves and shrinking space, the ice opened up and the Kings slipped in.
Drew Doughty locked eyes with Anze Kopitar before darting down the right wing, and Kopitar telegraphed the puck onto Doughty's stick. Doughty then peaked toward the goal and found a streaking Marian Gaborik, who netted the game-winner in the Kings' 3-0 victory over the Carolina Hurricanes (21-20-7) on Thursday night.
Gaborik shook goaltender Cam Ward with a left-to-right move before flicking a shot into an emptied net. Trevor Lewis banged in a bouncing puck 38 seconds later and Kyle Clifford iced the game with an empty-netter less than two minutes after that.
After Lewis' goal, Ward slammed his stick into the ground next to the Hurricanes' bench. Kings (24-21-4) goaltender Peter Budaj was finishing off a 22-save shutout, his fifth of the season. The fans streamed toward the exits, turning an already half-full PNC Arena into a ghost town.
"The difference in most games, and just about every game," Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said, "is big saves and bad goals."
The Kings already passed 41 games — which officially marks the midway point of the 82-game season — but Thursday provided another checkpoint of a volatile season. They still have not won three straight since a five-game winning streak in late November. The last 49 games have been filled with scoring droughts, handicapping injuries and occasional stretches of spotty goaltending with Jonathan Quick on the mend.
The next 33 contests, which will come after this weekend's All-Star break, provide a chance to find consistency. Two wins on the back end of a four-game trip provide a good jumping off point.
"We're right back in the playoff picture," Doughty said. "Not that we were really out of it, but the more games you lose you're just getting more and more out of it. So it was a great win, we stuck together with it. I thought they kind of outplayed us the first two periods and [Budaj] made some amazing saves for us to keep us in it, and we came with a flurry at them at the end."
Budaj, who started the season with the Ontario Reign in the American Hockey League, was more than a Band-Aid on Thursday. In his 42nd appearance of the season, the 34-year-old helped the Kings kill four power plays and hand the Hurricanes their first shutout loss of the season.
Ward, who was lightly tested by the Kings offense, nearly kept pace for the whole game. Budaj, conversely, was blitzed by the Hurricanes and their speedy forwards from the start. He repeatedly lay out in front of the crease. He shifted from post to post as the Hurricanes knocked the puck around. He took a handful of realistic scoring chances and turned them into dust.
The best one came off the stick of Sebastian Aho in the left slot. Aho's wrist shot clipped Alec Martinez's stick, bounced off a sliding Budaj, nicked the crossbar and caromed out. Budaj had a split-second to get to the right post and then even less time to protect the net from any rebounds. In the end no damage was done.
"Thank God it didn't go in," Budaj said, grinning, of Aho's chance. "There are a lot of those where you say wow, you should be thankful for that because that doesn't happen often."
The same could be said for the journeyman goalie between the pipes.