LOS ANGELES – If the Los Angeles Kings’ outstanding start is still escaping attention, maybe a come-from-behind win over the defending NHL champions will attract a little notice for Anze Kopitar and his young, hungry club.
Jarrett Stoll scored the go-ahead goal with 7:51 to play, and the Kings rallied for a four-goal third period in a 5-2 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Thursday night.
Kopitar, the speedy NHL scoring leader, tied it with his second goal early in the third for the Kings, who improved to 6-0-2 in their last eight games for the club’s longest point streak since November 2000. Yet that run only begins to illustrate the Kings’ confident play after six seasons out of the playoffs.
“Our maturity level is a lot higher,” said Kopitar, who has 26 points in 16 games. “We’re playing with a lot of desperation, and that’s a good thing. We were losing these kinds of games last year, going into the third period behind the champions. Now we’re sticking with it for 60 minutes and getting the right result.”
Kopitar and his linemates, Ryan Smyth and Justin Williams, matched up with Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby’s group for most of the night. They kept Crosby off the scoresheet while combining for two goals before their teammates took over in the third period.
“We’re looking for that line to be an elite line in the game,” Los Angeles coach Terry Murray said. “When you have that kind of expectation on you (from) a coaching staff, then there is a need to respond, and I’m seeing a more consistent effort that shows (Kopitar) wants to be that player.”
Jonathan Quick made a handful of stunning stops among his 21 saves in a standout performance for the Kings, who ended the Penguins’ season-opening, seven-game road winning streak with that dramatic late surge.
Michal Handzus scored on a rebound just 23 seconds after Stoll’s one-timer on a clever pass from captain Dustin Brown, and Brown added a goal with 2:30 left during a delayed penalty, putting a flourish on a victory that could signal the Kings’ early-season excellence during a 10-4-2 start has some staying power.
“You can’t deny that (Los Angeles) played well,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. “They forced us into a lot of the mistakes that we made. No matter how well you play defensively, when you’re forced to play back there for long periods of time, there are going to be loose pucks, and some of them can end up in your net.”
Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 27 shots but couldn’t slow down the third-period barrage by the Kings, who haven’t lost in regulation since Oct. 17. Two nights after erasing a late two-goal deficit at Phoenix for a 5-3 win, the Kings again finished strong.
“We didn’t play great, and sometimes you get away with that,” Crosby said. “It’s a good lesson for us. We have gotten away with bad periods in the past, but tonight we didn’t. We didn’t capitalize on our chances and we didn’t play well in the third, and in a tight game like that, you can’t afford for that to happen.”
Jordan Staal and Chris Kunitz scored for the Penguins, who lead the Eastern Conference with 24 points. Pittsburgh opened its four-game road trip on Tuesday with a 4-3 win at Anaheim, matching the longest road winning streak in franchise history with just the Penguins’ second win in California in nearly 11 years.
Pittsburgh dropped to 2-2 without Evgeni Malkin, last season’s NHL scoring champion, who is out with a strained shoulder. Defenceman Sergei Gonchar also is out.
Just 27 seconds after the opening faceoff, Kopitar scored when Pittsburgh’s poor transition defence allowed Justin Williams to slip the puck to him for an unimpeded rush at the net. He easily deked Fleury out of position for his 12th goal – but 43 seconds later, Staal fired a long slap shot past Quick for his fourth goal.
The Kings’ second-period dominance finally was rewarded in the third when Kopitar corralled the rebound of Williams’ shot behind the net and swung it around to beat a sprawling Fleury with a backhand. The goal was Kopitar’s ninth in eight games during his breakout season.
NOTES: Handzus was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty late in the second period for shooting the puck at Fleury one moment after the referees stopped play for a penalty. Kings coach Terry Murray vehemently argued the unusual ruling, to no avail. … Crosby made the second appearance of his career at Staples Center. … The Penguins scratched F Tyler Kennedy, who returned against Anaheim after missing three games with a groin injury.