DETROIT -- It was a move made out of exasperation, as much as anything, a move made by a coach willing to try anything to get production out of his No. 1 center.
Terry Murray knew that if the Kings were to thrive in this playoff race, they would need a lot out of Anze Kopitar, more than they’ve been getting of late. In search of a spark, Murray partnered Kopitar with two grinders, Brad Richardson and Wayne Simmonds.
How did it work out? On Saturday, better than Murray probably could ever have hoped.
The line combined for seven points and factored in all three goals, and Kopitar had one of his strongest efforts of the season as the Kings rallied from an early two-goal deficit to beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 on Saturday night before 20,066 at Joe Louis Arena.
The Kings trailed 2-0 after less than eight minutes, but completed an unlikely rally. Kopitar scored the Kings’ first goal and assisted on the other two, Peter Harrold’s tying goal, 6:27 into the third period – his first of the season -- and Richardson’s game-winner with 7:57 remaining. Kopitar finished with eight shots on goal and had a plus-3 rating.
``That was his best game of the year, tonight,’’ Murray said of Kopitar. ``He built up some momentum, off the last game at home, and I thought tonight he was a real horse. He was coming with speed, with a lot of authority to attack.
``Every time the puck was on his stick, he was at the net. He was in dirty areas, paying a price. He was very physical in battles for puck possession. He came up with them a lot of the time. His best game of the year.’’
The same, arguably, could be said for the Kings as a whole. What did the win mean?
In the short term, it moved the Kings into sixth place in the Western Conference, two points behind fifth-place Phoenix (with one game in hand) and it allowed them to start their five-game road trip with a good feeling.
In the long term, it could boost the confidence of a young team that often felt snakebit.
In the teams’ previous 26 games, the Red Wings had won 24 times. In the teams’ last meeting, on Jan. 7 at STAPLES Center, the Kings peppered the Red Wings with 52 shots on goal but lost 2-1 on a goal with 18 seconds remaining.
Were the Wings in the Kings’ heads? It seemed possible, and they were also on the Kings’ tails, just one point behind them in the standings entering Saturday. The Kings then, had a lot to be pleased about after their comeback win.
``Obviously we've had a hard time against them,’’ Kings captain Dustin Brown said. ``We've played some good games against them and just haven't got the result. Tonight was a huge moment for us, as a team, I think. Not only from a positional standpoint, in the standings, but in terms of the confidence level in this room.
``We always thought we could beat the Red Wings, especially coming off our last game against them, when we felt we dominated. We came in here ready to go and we put ourselves in a hole, but I think that confidence and belief within our group prevailed tonight. It was a huge two points.’’
And a huge night from the unlikely top line. Simmonds and Richardson started the season on the third and fourth lines, respectively, but Murray hoped that pairing two tireless skaters, and hard workers, with Kopitar would open things up for him.
It worked. Richardson had his goal and one assist, and Simmonds had two assists.
``Those three young guys are really thriving on each other,’’ Murray said. ``They like coming through the middle of the ice with the speed that they're able to use. I think they are making a big statement to me, right now, with the way they're digging in and playing. I'll just go with it for a bit and see how it starts to unfold, chemistry-wise.
``If I'm getting Anze Kopitar as my No. 1 center iceman out of this experiment, of putting two young guys on the wing there, it's going to pay off for us.’’
Kopitar scored his 20th goal of the season, and it’s been a tough march. At one point, Kopitar was the NHL’s leading scorer, and he needed only 12 games to score his first 10 goals of the season. He needed 39 games to score his next 10 goals.
``Kopi clearly outplayed their best players, and we kept maybe their three top players off the score sheet, at least with goals,’’ Brown said. ``That's what happens when you have 20 guys going, and your best players are your best players. Not only Kopi, but I thought Dewey and Jack played pretty solid on the back end.
``We need that every night. With Quicker, that's kind of been the norm. In my opinion, he's always there for us. Kopi was the best player on the ice tonight, but it was also the other 19 guys who did their part and Kopi was able to get his opportunities.’’
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick had a strong game -- particularly with Detroit fighting for the tying goal in the third period -- made 31 saves and got the better of Detroit's Jimmy Howard (30 saves), but not before the Red Wings put the Kings in a big hole.
Detroit took the lead at the 5:29 mark of the first period. Valtteri Filppula took a pass from Dan Cleary, skated into the slot and around Kings center Oscar Moller, and then held the puck until Quick committed. Filppula shot high and scored.
The Red Wings took a 2-0 lead just more than two minutes later, and just 13 seconds into a two-man advantage after a questionable tripping call on Simmonds. Brian Rafalski's shot from the high slot got deflected by Todd Bertuzzi past Quick at the 7:31 mark.
``It's a two-goal game,’’ Kopitar said. I know it's (bad) but a two-goal lead is the worst lead in hockey, I guess. You score one and you're right back in the game. You put them on their heels, and we managed to score in the third period. I thought we took the game over from there.’’
Despite the deficit, the Kings didn’t play particularly poorly in the first period, and they actually outshot the Red Wings 12-11. They would get rewarded in the second period.
The Kings pulled within one goal 1:55 into the second period. Simmonds forced the puck away from Jonathan Ericsson. Kopitar picked it up and shot, and Howard made the save, but with the puck loose in front, Richardson jabbed at it and popped it into the air, over Howard's head. As the puck was coming down, Kopitar knocked it over the line.
The Kings tied the game 6:27 into the third period. Kopitar did the hard work to get the puck in the corner. Simmonds then got it and made a quick pass to Harrold in the slot, and Harrold beat Howard with a wrist shot, with Scott Parse providing traffic in front.
``I just came down, and everyone was kind of piled up in front of the net,’’ Harrold said. ``There was a lot of net on the left side, so I just kind of floated it in there.’’
Richardson scored the game-winning goal with 7:57 remaining in the third period. Richardson got good position in front of the Wings' net, took a quick centering pass from Parse and beat Howard. Kopitar got an assist for his third point of the night.