They saw the celebration in Vancouver, after the Canucks clinched the President’s Trophy, and in San Jose, after the Sharks wrapped up the Pacific Division title.
The Kings, it seems, had seen enough of opponents partying it up in their presence.
With a secured spot in the playoffs on the line, the Kings didn’t take the easiest route but they arrived nonetheless. The Kings beat the Phoenix Coyotes 3-2 in a shootout before a sellout crowd of 18,118 at STAPLES Center to secure a playoff spot.
The Kings have two games remaining in the regular season but are assured of finishing in the top eight in the Western Conference and moving on to the playoffs for a second consecutive season. Exactly how the first round will shake out remains anyone’s guess.
For now, the Kings are in fourth place in West. If they beat Anaheim on Friday and Saturday, they’re assured of staying in fourth place and having home-ice advantage in the first round, but the Kings could still finish as low as eighth place.
But that’s a worry for another day. As the horn sounded on their 80th game, near the end of an up-and-down season, one that has included stretches of exhilaration and frustration, the Kings are headed back to the playoffs for a second consecutive season. The Kings also tied a franchise single-season record with their 46th win.
``We’ve got a lot of character in the locker room,’’ said goalie Jonathan Quick, who improved to 10-0 in shootouts this season as he stopped two of three shots. ``We noticed that a little earlier in the season, when we went through a couple slumps and found ourselves out of the top eight.
``We went and won some big games on the road, in some tough arenas, and these guys continued to compete, and it’s a pleasure being in net for them.’’
In a winner-take-a-lot game, a secured playoff spot was on the line for the Kings and Coyotes. Whichever team took two points Wednesday would lock themselves into the top eight, and the teams gave efforts that matched the importance of the game.
The Kings struck first, with Jarret Stoll’s first-period goal after Dustin Brown’s brilliant end-to-end rush. The Coyotes answered less than two minutes later on Lee Stempniak’s goal, then took the lead late in the first period when Taylor Pyatt scored.
Kyle Clifford, a 20-year-old rookie who was still eligible for junior hockey at the start of the season, scored late in the second period to tie the game and, after 25 minutes of scoreless play in the third period and overtime, the game went to a shootout.
Michal Handzus scored in the first round for the Kings and Jarret Stoll scored in the second round (and improved to 9-for-10 in shootouts this season). Radim Vrbata kept Phoenix alive with a second-round goal, but Quick stopped Lauri Korpikoski in the third round to win the game and send the home crowd into raucous celebration.
``In the shootout, Jonathan Quick is outstanding,’’ coach Terry Murray said. ``He really gets his focus and sometimes he amazes me, as to how he comes out at the end of the day on the shootout situation. He had to make a stop for us to win, and he did.’’
The shootout ended before the Kings could get to Clifford, Brad Richardson and Wayne Simmonds, but it was just as well. That trio did plenty of work in regulation.
Forced into service as the Kings’ first line, in the absence of injured stars Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, the trio of Clifford, Richardson and Simmonds provided a head-turning effort, punctuated by Clifford’s huge game-tying second-period goal.
All game long, the lunch-pail line crashed the corners and the front of the net, stirring up loose pucks, winning them and helping to sap some energy from the gritty Coyotes.
``We came out strong,’’ Clifford said. ``Simmer and Richie have provided energy for this team all year long, so they did a great job out there. ... It’s great to be with those two, combined. It’s a real honor.’’
The Kings took a 1-0 lead with 7:39 remaining in the first period after Brown's oustanding effort. Brown controlled the puck behind the Kings' net, then beat three Phoenix defenders on an end-to-end rush. Brown ultimately got to the front of the net and pushed a pass across the crease to Stoll, who tapped it in just before the net was dislodged.
The Kings, though, continued their season-long trend of allowing a goal after scoring one. This time, it took only 1 minute, 39 seconds, as Pyatt made a centering pass from behind the net that found Stempniak alone in front, and Stempniak shot and scored from the inside of the right circle to tie the game 1-1 with exactly six minutes remaining in the first period.
Phoenix took a 2-1 lead with 2:02 remaining in the first period. Vernon Fiddler got the puck in deep, and Stempniak took it to the net and took a tight-angle shot. Quick made the stop, but the rebound bounced behind him and stayed in the crease, and Pyatt got to the front of the net alone and knocked it in.
The Kings tied the game 2-2 with 2:57 remaining in the second period. Simmonds won a battle for the puck with Phoenix's Keith Yandle at the offensive blue line, then took it to the net. Simmonds pulled up in the middle of the right circle and passed to Clifford, who crashed the net and knocked the puck past Ilya Bryzgalov a split-second before he barreled over the goalie.
``You got a glimpse of the future there,’’ Murray said. ``That was a great goal. That was a young kid, (20) years old, that’s showing you how to play a power game that is going to make him a real successful player on this team for a long time.
``That’s a hard play. That’s a lot of courage, to go to the net as hard as he did. Simmonds makes a great play. Scuds makes a great play to get the puck up to Simmonds, and then he gets around the defenseman. But to find Clifford driving as hard as he did, to get to the net with no hold-back, boy, that’s a glimpse of the future for sure.’’
From there, the Kings outshot the Coyotes 12-9 in a scoreless third period and held on through overtime, in which the Coyotes had a 4-0 edge in shots. With the crowd on its feet in the shootout, the Kings ensured that their season will continue.
``It’s a real honor to be here, and to make it into the playoffs is an honor in this league,’’ Clifford said. ``The next step is winning. You’ve got to take it round by round, and this whole team has their sights set on the Stanley Cup.’’
1 - 0 LAK
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 PHX