LOS ANGELES — Going into Thursday night’s action, the San Jose Sharks had not lost in regulation play in twenty games, having gone 18-0-2 over that stretch.
Indeed, the Sharks are smoking hot and have been virtually unbeatable since they acquired defenseman Brian Campbell at the trade deadline. Add to that the Vezina Trophy candidate play that Evgeni Nabokov is giving the Sharks in goal in just about every game and it is easy to see why the Sharks have locked up first place in the Pacific Division.
But all streaks come to an end. But what was almost unbelievable was who ended it…none other than the lowly Los Angeles Kings the worst team in the National Hockey League going into Thursday’s action.
Anze Kopitar scored two goals, Brian Willsie and Raitis Ivanans added a goal each and Erik Ersberg made 32 saves to lead the Kings to a 4-2 win over the Sharks in front of 17,759 fans at Staples Center on Thursday night.
Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski scored for the Sharks. Nabokov was the surprise starter in goal after the Sharks announced the day before that Brian Boucher would get the nod against the Kings.
Nabokov was two wins away from tying the league record for wins in a season by a goaltender, a record held by Martin Brodeur.
Thornton opened the scoring just 36 seconds into the game after Ersberg misplayed Thornton’s centering pass.
“The first goal was kind of my fault,” said Ersberg. “I felt a little bad. But I guess it’s better to have that in the first minute than the last minute. You look at it that you have 59 minutes to make up for that.”
“They got the fortunate bounce,” said Kings head coach Marc Crawford. “Joe Thornton caught our rookie goaltender trying to cheat a little bit and they got the one-goal lead. But Erik really beared down and was great from that point on.”
Indeed. Ersberg and the Kings made up for their bad first shift by turning things around fairly quickly in the first period.
“We got down pretty quick on the first shift, but we didn’t panic,” said Kopitar. “We knew we had nothing to lose and that we could play better. We stepped up our game, we outshot them in the first period which really got the crowd into the game.”
The Kings stepped up their play even more in the second period and dominated the game.
Willsie was in the right place at the right time when a loose puck bounced to him in the slot. He got off a weak wrist shot through traffic that trickled past Nabokov at the 2:14 mark for his third goal of the season, assisted by Michael Cammalleri, tying the game.
A little over eight minutes later, none other than scoring god Raitis Ivanans scored his sixth goal of the season, taking a feed in front of the net from Alexander Frolov and beating Nabokov inside the left goal post at 10:29.
The Sharks came out strong to start the third period and tied the game on a one-time blast from the slot by Pavelski with the Sharks on the power play at the 3:03 mark.
But the Kings asserted themselves the rest of the way, and they took the lead for good when Kopitar got the puck in the low slot and wristed the puck past Nabokov at the 14:22 mark, assisted by Dustin Brown and Scott Thornton.
Kopitar added an empty-net goal at the 19:56 mark to give the Kings their final margin of victory,
“We were terrific tonight and very deserving of the two points,” said Crawford. “I’m very proud of the way that our guys played. The older guys led, the younger guys played with a lot of spirit, and there wasn’t a man on our team who didn’t step up tonight.”
“They made it interesting by tying it on the power play goal,” added Crawford. “It was probably the lone big mistake that we made all night. As I said, Erik really beared down in the net. I thought that our defensive corps as a whole all played really well. That was the best game people like [Lubomir] Visnovsky and Cammalleri have played in awhile.”
“I thought our older guys really led the way tonight. Whether it was [Rob] Blake or [Jon] Klemm, [Michal] Handzus or Thornton, a lot of guys were putting their bodies in front of shots. To see Anze Kopitar block two shots at the end of the games speaks volumes for the character of our team and the development of our team.”
Kopitar pointed to his team’s strong third period as being the difference in the game.
“They didn’t lose in regulation in twenty games, so they were playing with a lot of confidence,” Kopitar explained. “You can really see that they’re comfortable on the ice. At some point, maybe we were a little shaken, but that’s how the game goes. Momentum pretty much changes all the time. In the third, we took over again. I think we deserved this win. We had a lot of chances, too. We didn’t put it in the back of the net at first, but the bounces came our way. I’m really [glad] we got the win.”
“Maybe they let down a bit [in the second period],” Kopitar added. “We had a couple of really strong shifts in their end and we scored those two goals which gave us the boost and the energy to play in the third.
“We talked about that in between periods,” Crawford explained. “We knew they’re going to come at us and let’s not let them think they can come in here, play a period and beat us. I thought it was a great response by our club. All four lines, all six defensemen, the goaltender—everybody was good tonight.”
“I thought the trainers even did a good job passing out the sticks,” Crawford added with a wide grin.
Crawford emphasized that his entire team played very well in this game.
“We rate our forwards and our defensemen after every game,” said Crawford. “I didn’t have anybody who wasn’t really good tonight. When you get that type of performance where all your players play well, it’s very gratifying that they get the victory.”
“We were on tonight,” added Crawford. “We forechecked really well, we recovered real well, we didn’t give them a lot of open space. We stood up real well. They generate a lot of speed through the neutral zone, but we took a lot of it away because we were skating so well and we were confident in how we were playing. Our defense was very stingy tonight. I thought, as a team, we really checked them into the ground and didn’t give them a lot of chances.”
After giving up that first goal, Ersberg was also “on.”
“It felt good to get a win, especially against this team,” he said. “They’ve gone twenty games without a loss so it’s good that we could break that streak. It was a fun game.”
As for the Sharks, they were not at their best and they knew it.
“We didn’t skate well and we didn’t move the puck quick enough,” said Campbell. “Guys weren’t getting open for each other. Obviously, it’s tough when you’re not playing for a whole lot right now. But we have to try to stay as sharp as possible to get ready here.”
“You want to be confident going into the playoffs, but you don’t want to be overconfident and think you’re invincible,” said Sharks winger Mike Grier. “Tonight kind of showed that if you let your guard down, even for a little bit, the game’s not going to go your way. We kind of slept through the first two periods and didn’t play with enough intensity to match them.”
“Hopefully, we all realize that it’s now back to work and start doing the little things that we’ve been doing over the last couple of month that have made us successful.”
Of course, the game was mostly meaningless for the Sharks, except for the end of their impressive streak.
“I suppose it’s not a bad thing, the streak was unbelievable,” said Sharks head coach Ron Wilson. “When you go into games like these you’re looking and seeing if people are capable of getting the job done. We have a lot of guys and a lot of decisions to make, if everyone’s healthy and rested, it makes it easy.”
“You know it’s going to come to an end at some point, but it shouldn’t have been now,” said Grier. “They had a lot of pride and I don’t think we played with enough intensity to match them in the first two periods.”
“It’s hard to tell what’s going through different guys’ heads,” added Grier. “We’re professionals. Whether you’re looking ahead or not or thinking about other things, when it’s time to play you’ve got to be ready to play. And we weren’t tonight.”
And for Nabokov, he missed his chance to tie Brodeur’s record.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t help Nabby get the job done,” said Wilson. “A couple of guys were awful and it really hurt us in our own end. They let Nabby down and it cost him an opportunity to play Sunday to tie a pretty incredible record.”
Speaking of meaningless games, it meant even less for the Kings.
“These games are virtually meaningless for us, yet guys are willing to sacrifice their bodies and they’re willing to do the right thing. That’s a good sign.” said Crawford.
The Kings have just one game left in their season and have nothing left to shoot for.
Or do they?
“Now we’ve got one more,” said Crawford. “Hopefully, we can finish strong for our fans and then the most important thing is to win the lottery on Monday.”
That would be Monday’s NHL draft lottery on Monday when the Kings will find out if they get the first or second pick in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
Don’t let the suspense kill you.
NOTES: Anze Kopitar’s two goals gave him 32 goals on the season, tying him with Brown for the team lead; Ivanans has a two-game goal scoring streak; The Kings and Sharks split the season series, 4-4-0.
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