LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Kings caught the San Jose Sharks with one eye on the post-season and gave them quite a wakeup call, along with a valuable dose of humility.
Anze Kopitar scored twice in the final 5:38 to lead the Kings to a 4-2 victory over playoff-bound San Jose, handing the Sharks their first regulation loss in 21 games.
“Twenty games is an incredible streak. There’s nothing more I can say about it. It’s phenomenal,” Sharks coach Ron Wilson said. “I mean, we’re the only team in NHL history to go the whole month of March (without a regulation loss). It’s virtually impossible, but we did it.”
Brian Willsie and Raitis Ivanans, who totalled seven goals in the Kings’ first 80 games, both scored against Vezina Trophy candidate Evgeni Nabokov before Kopitar got his 31st of the season with 5:38 remaining for the go-ahead goal and added an empty-netter with 4 seconds left.
“It felt good to get a win, especially against this team,” Kings rookie goaltender Erik Ersberg said after making 32 saves. “They’ve gone 20 games without a loss so it’s good that we could break that streak. It was a fun game.”
The loss was the Sharks’ first that didn’t involve overtime or a shootout since Feb. 20, when the New Jersey Devils beat them 3-2 in Newark. San Jose lost to Edmonton on March 16, snapping a franchise-best 11-game winning streak, then lost in overtime four games later at Phoenix on Martin Hanzal’s overtime goal.
“It’s probably good that it happened that we lose a game before the playoffs. Sometimes you just need to refocus,” Nabokov said. “We need to get back on track and get going again.”
By dropping their next-to-last game of the regular season, the Sharks won’t become the first post-1980 expansion team to put together back-to-back 50-win seasons. Nor will Nabokov get a chance to tie the NHL record of 47 victories set last season by New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur.
“I’m disappointed that we didn’t help Nabby get the job done,” Wilson said. “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.”
Joe Thornton had a goal and an assist for San Jose and Joe Pavelski got the tying goal on a power play with 16:57 left in the third period. But the Sharks failed to get their first-ever sweep of the four road games against the Kings.
“You want to be confident going into the playoffs, but you don’t want to be overconfident and think you’re invincible,” forward Mike Grier said. “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.”
The Kings didn’t have to play short-handed until Alexander Frolov was sent off for hooking Marc-Edouard Vlasic with 17:33 left in the third. The Sharks tied it just 36 seconds later with Pavelski’s 19th goal.
Los Angeles’ first two goals came on short wrist shots by Willsie and Ivanans that beat Nabokov between the pads and trickled across the goal line. Willsie’s third of the season tied the score at 2:14 of the second period. Ivanans’ sixth goal put the Kings ahead at 10:29.
“We were very deserving of the win tonight,” coach Marc Crawford said. “I thought our defence was very stingy tonight and as a team we really checked them into the ground and didn’t give them a lot of chances.”
Thornton opened the scoring just 36 seconds after the opening faceoff with his 29th goal and ninth in seven games. The Sharks have scored the first goal a league-leading 55 times this season (38-12-5) and have done it 18 times during this 18-1-2 surge.
The Kings, who will finish last in their division for the seventh time in franchise history and first time since 1998-99, are tied with Tampa Bay in the race to avoid finishing with the league’s worst record. Both teams have 71 points and play their season finale on Saturday, with Los Angeles hosting Anaheim and the Lightning visiting Atlanta. The only time the Kings had the fewest points in the league was 1969-70.
Notes: Regardless of that happens Saturday, the Sharks will go into the playoffs with the second-best record in the league. Detroit clinched the Presidents’ Trophy with a 3-2 win over Columbus. … Kings front office executive Luc Robitaille held the NHL single-season record of 63 goals by a left-wing until Washington’s Alex Ovechkin broke it Thursday night with a pair against Tampa Bay.