LOS ANGELES – Anze Kopitar’s slick short-handed goal was exactly what everybody expects from the Los Angeles Kings’ leading scorer. His steady defence against Rangers star Marian Gaborik was a whole lot more surprising.
The Kings needed both dimensions of their dynamic young leader to extend their longest winning streak in 18 years, and Kopitar repeatedly came through on both ends of the ice.
Kopitar scored late in the second period and Jonathan Quick made 20 saves in the Kings’ seventh straight victory, 2-1 over punchless New York on Tuesday night.
Ryan Smyth scored with 8:46 to play for the Kings, who are on their longest winning streak since early 1992, when Wayne Gretzky’s Kings won a franchise-record eight straight. The Great One famously made hockey a hot ticket in Hollywood for a few years, and Kopitar’s talented young Kings are trying to rekindle the affair.
“We had a 5-0 road trip, and everybody is feeling great and confident,” Kopitar said. “I think that speaks for itself. Coming here after 12 days (away), we knew the crowd was going to be good, and we came out strong. Sometimes you need a little change on the road to come together again.”
After winning those five straight road games on the lengthy trip necessitated by the Grammys occupying Staples Center, the Kings returned home to a sellout crowd mostly cheering for them, and not the always-popular Rangers. With gritty wins over Buffalo, Detroit, Boston and New Jersey, Los Angeles reclaimed its stride during the trip, which followed a lacklustre seven-game homestand.
“We needed to bring that road mentality out there, and we did,” Kings coach Terry Murray said. “Guys were alert, and good plays were being made. … The Rangers really spread out on the ice, so there had to be a lot of awareness with the checking part of the game. It’s hard coming back home with one day off from such a long road trip. I talked about the importance of bringing that attitude, coming back to your home building without cutting corners.”
The Kings wouldn’t have felt nearly as good about themselves without a stellar defensive game from Kopitar, Wayne Simmonds and Brad Richardson. They largely shut down Gaborik’s reconfigured line featuring Olli Jokinen, the Rangers’ latest attempt to inject scoring and toughness into a season that’s sliding downhill.
Gaborik scored with 2:37 left to ruin Quick’s shutout bid, but New York lost its sixth in seven games despite the arrivals of Jokinen and enforcer Brandon Prust, both acquired in a trade with Calgary less than 24 hours earlier.
“It’s been pretty hectic the last couple of days, and it’s part of the business,” Jokinen said. “I’m disappointed we didn’t get two points. It doesn’t matter who you play with. You can’t focus on that. It’s about winning over here, and whoever plays well and hard is going to play here.”
Henrik Lundqvist stopped 19 shots for New York, which had a handful of tantalizing chances after Gaborik scored his fourth goal in two games. Quick stayed strong, stopping Gaborik on the game’s final shot.
Not even a trade for two tough forwards could spark the Rangers, who had scored just five goals during a five-game skid before Sunday’s 3-1 win at Colorado featuring Gaborik’s hat trick.
“We’re OK. We have to be OK,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said. “You can’t be dragging your head around and being down about it. … You need to answer every night and try to find a way to win. So the state of the team is we need to be professionals, learn, and get ready to play another game.”
The Rangers immediately got what they expect from Prust, the rambunctious forward who is second in the NHL with 18 fighting majors.
Less than eight minutes into his first game, he put a nasty check on Jack Johnson, running the Los Angeles defenceman horizontally into the boards behind his net for a penalty. Prust then was given an instigator penalty, a fighting major and a 10-minute misconduct for a brief bout with Brandon Segal midway through the second period.
After 36 scoreless minutes, Kopitar scored on a 2-on-1 break after a turnover. After a midseason swoon, the Kings’ first-quarter NHL scoring leader has 11 points during the winning streak.
Smyth then capitalized on a clever short pass by Kings captain Dustin Brown past frozen Rangers defenceman Michal Roszival, roofing a quick shot for his 17th goal.
The Rangers finally scored when Erik Christensen flipped a pass in front for Gaborik, who deflected it home from the lip of the crease for his 34th goal.
NOTES: The oft-traded Jokinen played his first two NHL seasons with the Kings, who drafted the Finnish forward with the third overall pick in 1997. Los Angeles eventually traded him for Ziggy Palffy. … Los Angeles is 21-0-0 when leading after two periods. … Dodgers OF Andre Ethier dropped the ceremonial first puck.