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Just one day earlier, they had all been on the ice together, teammates banging sticks and yelping after a nice tip-in goal by Marco Sturm in practice. Then, Sturm was gone.
Who would replace him, both in the short term and the long term? Was a trade on the horizon? Could the Kings put aside the distractions and focus on earning two points against Colorado? Only some of the questions were able to be answered Saturday.
After Sturm was claimed off waivers from Washington -- having spent only 10 weeks in the Kings organization -- the KIngs ran out to a four-goal lead then hung on for a 4-3 victory over the Colorado Avalanche before a sellout of 18,118 at STAPLES Center.
The Kings took another positive step in the Western Conference playoff race, as they improved to 11-1-3 in their last 15 and maintained their grip on fifth place in the conference, two points clear of Minnesota and Dallas and one point behind Phoenix.
The question now becomes whether the Kings will add a forward before Monday’s trade deadline. With exactly six weeks left in the regular season, every victory is huge, but on Saturday afternoon the Kings turned what should have been a laugher in a nail-biter.
Anze Kopitar scored a first-period goal, Alec Martinez and Drew Doughty made it 3-0 going into the third period, and the Kings seemed headed for cruise control after Jarret Stoll’s power-play goal 5:47 into the third period. Perhaps that was the problem.
Down 4-0 with less than eight minutes remaining, the Avalanche scored three goals, and made it a one-goal game when Paul Stastny scored with 30 seconds remaining, but the Kings held on as Jonathan Quick (14 saves) got the win in goal.
The Kings totaled a season-high 42 shots on goal and also held the Avalanche to 17 shots on goal as they improved to 3-0-0 against Colorado this season.
``That's definitely not the way you want to finish the game, but at the end of the day we got two points,’’ said Kopitar, who also had one assist. ``I'm sure we're going to correct that. The coaches are going to address that in the next game, and I'm pretty sure that when the Red Wings come to town (Monday), we'll be a little different. We just have to stay sharp throughout 60 minutes, not just 50. We've got to make it a 60-minute game.''
The Kings scored two power-play goals but also had nine chances and failed to score on two lengthy 5-on-3 advantages against a Colorado team that, until the final eight minutes, looked lethargic as it lost for the 11th time in its last 12 games.
``Obviously we're pretty happy with the game we played today,’’ Doughty said. ``We dominated pretty much the whole thing, but obviously not happy with our lapse at the end there. Good teams shut things down, and we didn’t do that today but we can in the future.''
That future won’t include Sturm, who left the team just four hours before the game.
To be sure, the Kings knew they were at risk of losing Sturm when they put him on waivers Friday morning, but given his salary-cap hit ($3.5 million) and relative lack of production while trying to return from a serious knee injury, it seemed somewhat unlikely that any team would put in a bid for Sturm. But the Capitals did, and they got him.
Sturm had been scheduled to skate on the Kings’ first line Saturday -- although after the game, coach Terry Murray said he thought about scratching Sturm anyway -- leaving the Kings to shuffle their lines just a few hours before the game, without practice time.
Brad Richardson moved from the third line to the first line, with Kopitar and Wayne Simmonds. Kyle Clifford moved from the fourth line to the third line, with Michal Handzus and Justin Williams, and Kevin Westgarth rejoined the lineup.
Kings players, by all indications, shrugged and moved on with game preparation.
``It's tough,’’ Kopitar said. ``It’s one of those things where Marco wasn’t here for a long time, but it seems he got along with everybody in such a short time, so it’s tough to see him go. But, at the end of the day, it’s a business and you’ve got to do what you’re told and he got picked up and there’s not a lot we can do about it.
``We came down here and saw the lineup on the board and that was it. I've played with Richie and Simmer, not too long ago, so it wasn't too hard. I think they know what my skills are and I know what their skills are, so it's not that big of a secret.''
The line scored the first goal of the game, giving Kopitar goals in three consecutive games after a stretch in which he had one goal in his previous 15 games.
The Kings' newly constructed first line came through with the game's first goal. Richardson controlled the puck behind the Colorado net and carried it out front. Colorado goalie Brian Elliott made a stop, but the rebound stayed in the crease and Kopitar knocked in the rebound to give the Kings a 1-0 lead 7:13 into the first period. Simmonds also picked up an assist on Kopitar's 20th goal of the season.
The Kings took a 2-0 lead 9:50 into the second period. Clifford battled for the puck along the boards in the Colorado zone, then pushed it back to Martinez at the left point. With Westgarth running some traffic in front, Martinez's slap shot beat Elliott. Trevor Lewis also got an assist.
A power-play goal gave the Kings a 3-0 lead with 1.1 seconds remaining in the second period. After a battle behind the Colorado net, Kopitar pushed the puck up to the blue line, and Doughty's shot got through traffic. Elliott made the stop, but the puck trickled behind him and over the line. Ryan Smyth also got an assist, the 400th of his NHL career.
``Everyone was down low, Kopi made a great bank pass to me and from there I just had to take the one-timer and get it on net,’’ Doughty said. ``It wasn’t a perfect shot or anything, but it squeaked through and went in.'’
The Kings' second power-play goal of the game -- this time, a 4-on-3 advantage -- gave them a 4-0 lead 5:47 into the third period. Stoll took a cross-ice pass from Williams and beat Elliott with a slap shot from the top of the left circle. Doughty also got an assist.
Colorado broke the Kings' shutout bid with two quick successive goals by David Jones in the third period.
First, the Avalanche scored a 5-on-3 power play goal with 7:18 remaining, when Jones took a cross-ice pass from John-Michael Liles and beat Quick from close range to give Colorado its first goal. Then, just 39 seconds later, Jones made it a 4-2 game when, while parked in front of the Kings' net, he deflected Erik Johnson's point shot past Quick with 6:39 remaining.
Colorado made it interesting late, as the Avalanche pulled within 4-3 with 30 seconds remaining. Stastny forced the puck away from Quick behind the net, then had his centering attempt go off Jarret Stoll and into the Kings' net.
``We made it interesting at the end, just through getting too casual, a little careless with some plays at critical times at the game,’’ Murray said. ``You go into the third period with that kind of a scenario, you want to make sure you’re able to lock it down. Good teams do. You don’t get reckless or careless. We started taking some penalties, especially the high sticking penalties. We iced the puck, again, when the game is right on the line, in a 4-3 game when you're two feet from the red line, we don't recognize that. The good teams don't do that. We've got to clean that part of it up right away.''