LOS ANGELES — After losing six straight games to the Phoenix Coyotes this season, the Los Angeles Kings salvaged the final two games, the latest, a 4-0 blowout victory on Thursday night in front of 17,331 fans at Staples Center.
Leading the way was Kings center Anze Kopitar with a goal and two assists, while rookie goaltender Erik Ersberg stopped 38 shots, earning his second shutout of the season.
It was also his second shutout of what might just be a promising National Hockey League career.
After a scoreless first period in which the Coyotes held a distinct advantage in terms of quality scoring opportunities, the Kings found their game and turned up the heat on the Coyotes, who quickly wilted.
The Coyotes’ self-destruction began when Kopitar carried the puck into the Phoenix zone on right wing, drawing three Coyotes players to him. That left the entire left side of the ice wide open for Kings defenseman Kevin Dallman, who had just come off the bench. Kopitar flipped a saucer pass right onto Dallman’s stick in the left circle and he beat Phoenix netminder Mikael Tellqvist low, just past his left leg pad at the 6:52 mark.
“When you get the first goal it gives you wings and you are more comfortable making plays you normally wouldn’t,” Kopitar explained. “The key was that the defensemen were giving us the puck right away and they were joining the play. We have really quick defensemen and when they join the attack it really helps us.”
Kopitar scored his thirtieth goal of the season at the 9:14 mark—another easy one for the Kings—when he backhanded a fat rebound coughed up by Tellqvist into the wide open left side of the net.
“It’s satisfying,” Kopitar said about scoring his thirtieth goal. “I was waiting for this one for a couple of games already. I knew if I just played and worked hard without thinking about it, it was going to come sooner or later. I’m glad it came today.”
Kopitar had been in a bit of a goal-scoring slump. His goal against the Coyotes was his first in the last eight games.
Kings right wing Dustin Brown scored his 32nd goal of the season at 13:03 with Coyotes defenseman Nick Boynton in the box for hooking at 12:07. Brown was parked at left crease when he took a nice feed across the low slot from Kings winger Michael Cammalleri and had the entire left side of the net to shoot at.
But the carnage was not over yet.
Kings defenseman Rob Blake scored on a wide open shot in front of the Coyotes net at 11:54 of the third period during a four-on-four skating situation. Blake beat his man off the right wing boards and made a bee line to the front of the net where he took a pass from Kings winger Alexander Frolov. With a step or two on his man, Blake re-directed the puck into the open right side of the net for his ninth goal of the season, closing out the scoring.
The Coyotes, who still have very slim playoff hopes, disappeared after the first period in a game they desperately needed to keep those playoff aspirations alive.
“It was just not a very good effort on our part, Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky lamented. “I know it’s late in the season and obviously the situation is tough for us. But you’ve still got to show up and play. One of the things we’re proud of with our hockey club is that we work hard every day, in every practice. I’m disappointed because tonight wasn’t a very good effort.”
“We came out and played a pretty good first period, and then laid an egg in the second and third periods,” said Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski. “We hung our goalie out to dry, and that’s unacceptable.”
Gretzky, who was obviously disappointed after the game, said that only a handful of his players bothered to show up in this contest.
“We didn’t have eighteen forwards and defensemen show up tonight,” he said. “There were five or six guys who showed up tonight and played their hearts out and you’re not going to be successful when that happens. You win as a team and you lose as a team and we just didn’t have everybody going tonight.”
To be sure, the Coyotes were not firing on all cylinders and the Kings took full advantage.
“Maybe they underestimated us a little bit,” Kopitar explained. “They were controlling the game in the first period. We didn’t put it together. But after that, we started to make plays. We controlled the puck pretty much all of the second period.”
“If you have the puck, you can make plays and that leads to scoring chances,” Kopitar continued. “We buried three in the second and that was really important for us.”
Kings head coach Marc Crawford said that his team won the game by using their awareness to neutralize the Coyotes’ speed.
“We realize what a good skating club Phoenix is,” he explained. “They outskated us in the games they’ve won. Quite simply, that’s such a big factor in games, when a team skates you into the ice and gets to loose pucks quicker than you do, then you’re not going to be successful.”
“We’re very aware of their speed,” he elaborated. “They don’t have a slow player in their lineup. Our awareness was what was really good tonight. We had to compensate for the fact that they’ve got a fast team. The way you do that is make sure your positioning is correct and that your awareness is sharp. I thought that really was the difference in the game tonight. We looked like the much more aware club tonight. We ended up winning a lot of loose puck battles with positioning and with the great awareness we showed throughout the game.”
Crawford was especially pleased with the play of his defensemen, most notably Rob Blake and Jon Klemm, the elder statesmen of his team.
“I thought Jon Klemm was terrific tonight,” said Crawford. “When you see a pair of 38-year-olds blocking shots and putting their bodies in front of shots and banging people, they’re playing with a lot of youthful exuberance. I think it’s rubbing off on everyone else on our team. They’re really leading by tremendous example. Jon Klemm was a real, real good competitor for us tonight.”
But after all that, the big story of the game was the rookie in goal for the Kings, who was once again stellar in his crease and has allowed just one goal in his last two games spanning 123:10 of ice time.
For the season, Ersberg has played in eleven games, earning a 5-3-3 record with a 1.97 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage—both eye-opening numbers, especially for a rookie who came into the Kings’ dressing room with no expectations of him whatsoever.
Oh…and there are those two shutouts as well.
Ersberg’s parents have been in town this week, having traveled all the way from Sweden. They were in attendance on Wednesday night in Anaheim and on Thursday night at Staples Center.
Apparently, having family around has inspired the 26-year-old netminder, but they are scheduled to leave Southern California on Sunday.
“It’s been going pretty good lately,” said Ersberg. “[My parents] saw the last game too, so maybe I’ll keep them around a little longer.”
Indeed, Ersberg has been virtually unbeatable in his last two games, stopping a combined 77 shots and allowing just the one goal to Anaheim Ducks rookie forward Bobby Ryan on Wednesday night in the Ducks’ 2-1 shootout win.
Even more impressive…over his last four games, Ersberg is 3-0-1 and has stopped 129 out of 137 shots over that stretch.
“He’s been playing great the last couple of games,” said Kopitar. “He deserved the shutout today. He was sharp all the way. He made some big saves, too. I’m really glad for him because coming into the league, not knowing how he’s going to play, the way he’s playing, it seems that he’s really comfortable. That’s really good for us.”
“I can’t complain,” Ersberg said about his performance against the Coyotes. “It was a good night for me. They had to give everything they’ve got to make the playoffs. They threw a lot of shots at me, but we played a great game defensively. I saw almost every shot and they were there for me on the rebounds, too. They helped me out a lot.”
Speaking of being unbeatable, Ersberg is now 2-0 against the Coyotes this season, having beaten them on March 20, a 6-5 shootout victory in Phoenix.
“You have to give him credit, he played well last game, he played well tonight,” said Coyotes forward and team captain Shane Doan. “He’s a good goalie. You have to get a little bit more traffic in front of the net, but you have to give him credit.”
Ersberg, who became the first Kings rookie to earn multiple shutouts in one season since Cristobal Huet did so in the 2003-04 season, has started to turn heads and make people stand up and take notice. To be sure, Ersberg has exceeded all expectations.
By a long shot.
“I don’t think any of us were expecting that he would play the way he is right now,” said Kopitar. “That’s really comforting to us, knowing that he’s going to make some key saves in the game. That’s really positive for our club.”
Crawford explained that Ersberg’s play has worked wonders for solidifying his team’s defensive play.
“[Ersberg] has really played well,” said Crawford. “What he’s done is allow our defense to become much more comfortable with the way they play in the defensive zone. We haven’t changed much of how we play in the defensive zone. Now, with the saves coming and not as many rebounds as we saw earlier in the season, it’s allowed our defense to play, knowing where the pucks are going to go, knowing what they have to do and not worrying so much about pucks spraying off the goaltender and going all over the place. That’s a difficult way to play in the defensive zone.”
“I think that’s been the biggest change and Erik has been largely responsible for that,” added Crawford. “He has found pucks that get shot from the point. I’ll bet there were seven or eight tonight that he found through the scrums and they didn’t result in rebounds. He just stopped them and held them in his body.”
“He’s like a sponge right now, he really is,” Crawford explained. “He’s sucking all those shots into him and they’re not spraying off of him. That allows your defensive coverage to be so much more well-executed.”
“Part of it, when he’s reading the play and he’s finding the puck, he’s catching them,” Crawford stressed. “The pucks on his body, he’s drawing them into him as opposed to blocking and spitting it out.”
“He is a very good movement goaltender and very good on his angles.”
The rookie from Sweden is certainly trying to make an impression and trying to push his way to the top (or near the top) of the Kings’ goaltending depth chart.
“I’m just happy to get a chance to play here and show everybody what I can do,” said Ersberg. “Hopefully, it’ll be good for me for next year.”
“The loss yesterday was kind of tough, but I can’t complain. It’s been great so far.”
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