NEWARK, N.J. – The game, by all reasonable accounts, was over.
With less than three minutes remaining in the third period, the Kings trailed by one goal.
They were playing New Jersey, the top defensive team in the NHL.
They were killing a penalty.
They were playing on, perhaps at most, a handful of hours of sleep. Visions of the end of a long road trip, and a flight back to Los Angeles, were dancing in their tired heads.
Then something happened. Two somethings. Wayne Simmonds beat Martin Brodeur, one of the world’s best goalies, with a heave to the net, tying the game with 1:46 remaining. Drew Doughty somehow got a shot through heavy traffic with 28 seconds remaining.
That’s how the most improbable victory of the Kings’ season came together, as they rallied to beat New Jersey 3-2 on Sunday night before 17,625 at Prudential Center.
The victory, stunning in its own right, had deeper significance. It allowed the Kings to finish 5-0 on a road trip for the first time in franchise history. It pushed their overall winning streak to six games, their longest since 2001-02 (coincidentally, also the last season in which the Kings made the playoffs). It pushed their road winning streak to seven games, one short of the franchise record set 35 years ago.
Most importantly, perhaps, the win kept the Kings in fifth place in the Western Conference, with 69 points, seven points clear of ninth-place Detroit.
``Right from the start of the road trip,’’ Kings center Anze Kopitar said, ``if somebody would say, `You guys are going to be 4-1,' I think everyone would pretty much take that. Being 5-0, it's obviously great. I think now it's time to bring that attitude and energy at home, because we've got to start winning some home games too.’’
After the Kings rallied to beat Boston 3-2 in a shootout Saturday night, Kopitar had a sheepish grin as he called the game ``a little steal.’’ This one?
``That was a robbery, for sure,’’ Kopitar said with a wide smile.
The anatomy of the crime?
The Kings had every right to pack it in when they fell behind 2-0 six minutes into the third period. They had squeaked out two points in Boston the night before, and the tired Kings were faced a rested Devils team that has allowed the fewest goals in the NHL.
A two-goal deficit after two periods might well have finished the Kings, but with 29 seconds remaining in the second period, a forced turnover behind the Devils’ net led to a centering pass and a goal by Michal Handzus.
Suddenly, the Kings felt as though at least one point was within their grasp, and what a difference that feeling made in the locker room.
``Oh, that makes a world of a difference,’’ Kings winger Wayne Simmonds said. ``We got that goal with 30 seconds left in the second period, and I think that helped us carry the momentum over to the third. We came out and we didn't have any results right at the beginning of the third, but Quickie kept us in there too. I can't say enough about him. We just battled back.’’
Jonathan Quick made 26 saves to keep the Kings alive, but for a long while, it appeared as though the Devils would shut it down defensively and keep the Kings off the board.
When Ryan Smyth took a hooking penalty with 8:44 remaining, the Kings’ chances reduced greatly. When Smyth took another hooking penalty, with 4:02 remaining, the game, for all intents and purposes, had reached its conclusion.
But the Kings held the Devils to one shot on goal on that power play, and 16 seconds after it ended, the Kings scored the stunning game-tying goal.
Simmonds controlled the puck in the corner of the Devils’ zone. He flipped the puck toward the net, knowing that Smyth was – as usual – parked in front of the goalie. Smyth shielded Brodeur, and the puck somehow squeezed between goalie and post.
``I came on, and Richardson just hit me,’’ Simmonds said. ``I saw Smytty, and Smytty, like he does always, just parked himself right in front of the net. I threw it at the net, just hoping he would get a tip or have a great screen, and he did. He had a great screen, and Brodeur pulled off the post a little, and it just squeaked in.’’
Kings coach Terry Murray also gave credit to Richardson on the play.
``It's desperation time,’’ Murray said. ``The big play on that goal was on the other side of the ice. Richardson really sealed off one of their players, came up with the puck and made the play, to keep it alive. Then, throwing pucks to the net late in the game, you're just looking for something. There was good traffic. Smytty was right there. You're looking for a lucky break.’’
With the Devils still reeling, New Jersey’s Andy Greene tripped Kopitar with one minute remaining, shockingly giving the Kings a chance to win the game in regulation.
That’s what they did. Doughty controlled the puck just inside the blue line, held it for a moment to get himself in prime shooting position, and fired a slap shot toward the net.
Brodeuer had two Kings, Dustin Brown and Smyth, directly in front of him, and almost certainly never saw the shot as it whistled past him and the Kings celebrated.
``Well, this road trip has been pretty exciting,’’ Murray said. ``You get five wins on the road at this time of the year, the desperation that everybody is playing with is pretty remarkable, the way we have dug in. This game today was, I think, a real good look at the kind of team that we're starting to become. A lot of character, big heart, never gave up.
``It looked, at times, like it was slipping big-time on us, and then to dig in, in the third period, and find a way to get it done, was tremendous.’’
Quick’s play was, under the circumstances, also tremendous.
At the start of the road trip, Murray intended to start backup goalie Erik Ersberg against New Jersey, knowing that Quick wouldn’t have much rest after playing Saturday night.
But even after the Boston game went to a shootout, Murray went with his instincts and changed his mind, telling Quick that he would start against the Devils.
Quick’s game wasn’t perfect – the Devils’ second goal was a relatively soft wrist shot – but Quick seemed to somehow get stronger as the game went along.
``I enjoy playing,’’ Quick said. ``You practice every day with your team, you battle with your team, so when it comes to game time, you want to be out there and you want to be in net. I'm not going to turn down a game if I feel good.’’
Ironically enough, the Kings now face the challenge of playing at home. The Kings have the most road points in the NHL (39 in 30 games) but have only 30 points in 25 games at home, where, theoretically, they should be much stronger.
But there was no analysis needed after the road trip. The Kings far exceeded any expectations for the trip and pulled off their most stunning victory of the season.
``It's one of those games where I don't think we had a lot of energy, with the tight schedule that it was,’’ Kopitar said. ``Everybody, I thought, was pretty tired. I can talk for myself. I was pretty tired, especially in the first period. I was gassed a couple times. But we played a solid game, and Quickie kept us in there again.
``In the third period, he made some huge saves. We were just putting the pucks on net. Marty is a world-class goaltender, but he's been known to let a couple sharp-angle shots in too, so we just said that we were going to keep shooting the puck and see what happens. Fortunately for us, we got a couple bounces.’’