LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Never mind the surging Maple Leafs. Even the Toronto Marlies were too much for the spiralling Los Angeles Kings.
Nikolai Kulemin scored the tiebreaking goal with 15:02 to play, James Reimer made 30 saves and the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Kings 3-2 on Monday night for their fourth straight road victory.
With Reimer leading a late defensive stand, the long-struggling Maple Leafs reached the midway point of their season with three straight wins for the first time since their 4-0 start. Toronto coach Ron Wilson and captain Dion Phaneuf partly credit this minor surge to major contributions from three players who were with the AHL’s Marlies in mid-December.
“They’ve earned the right to keep on playing, and they’ve all done an excellent job,” Wilson said.
Darryl Boyce scored in his seventh NHL game during the second period, 34 seconds before Phil Kessel put the Leafs ahead on an assist by Joey Crabb, another recent callup.
“Those guys have all come in and helped us out when we needed it,” Phaneuf said. “We’ve been playing some great hockey for the last 10 days, two weeks. We weren’t getting results for a bit … but we’re all getting it done together now.”
And then there’s Reimer, who has won three of his first four NHL starts—beginning with a victory at Ottawa on New Year’s Day—while filling in for injured Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The 22-year-old goalie stopped all 17 Los Angeles shots in the third period and survived a 6-on-4 disadvantage for the final 1:42.
“He was outstanding all night,” Wilson said. “Every time we needed a whistle, he was cool and calm—coolly and calmly settles stuff down when the other team is all over us.”
Kulemin put the Leafs ahead with a nifty spin and a short shot past Jonathan Quick after the Kings broke down defensively. With an assist from linemate Mikhail Grabovski, the goal was the third in two games for Kulemin, who leads the Leafs with four game-winners.
After Phaneuf took a slashing penalty, Los Angeles got the puck behind Reimer with 35 seconds left, but video review confirmed it didn’t cross the goal-line. Toronto hasn’t lost on the road since Dec. 18.
“They came hard with a lot of pressure, dumping pucks in, but kudos to the guys,” Reimer said. “The team that’s down is always going to push hard. I just tried to take it shot by shot and not look at the clock.”
Wayne Simmonds and Michal Handzus scored for the Kings, who have lost six of seven—including five of six on their current eight-game homestand. Quick stopped 25 shots, but the Kings missed several chances to tie it in the final minutes, including that fruitless power play with Quick on the bench to end the game.
The Staples Center was filled with mostly nervous fans—except for those hundreds of blue-jerseyed Leafs supporters at Toronto’s first visit to Los Angeles since December 2008.
“When you’re playing a team that you don’t see a lot, you try to focus on the things that you have to do,” Kings defenceman Rob Scuderi said. “I think we did a good job of that in the first period and in the last 15 minutes, but it’s not enough. We find a way to do just enough to lose by one goal. That’s been the case since Christmas, and it’s got to turn around for us.”
The Kings began the second half of their season in a tie for ninth place in the Western Conference—not exactly where they hoped to be after leading the overall NHL standings earlier this fall. Los Angeles held a brief players-only meeting after the game.
“It’s something that needs to be changed with our attitude,” captain Dustin Brown said. “That’s all it is, really—playing the game right. We’re halfway through the year, this is a big homestand for us, and the playoffs are at stake, so we’ve got to find a way to get it going. We need to look each other in the face and get this thing turned around. I’m not sure what we need to do, but we’ll figure it out as players.”
After a slow start, Toronto evened it early in the second period when Boyce got a 1-on-1 break against Kings defenceman Alec Martinez. Boyce’s exceptional shot went between Martinez’s legs and into the glove-side corner of Los Angeles’ net for his second goal in six games since joining the Leafs on Dec. 30.
One shift later, Crabb’s pass slithered through the slot past Kings defencemen Rob Scuderi and Drew Doughty to Kessel, who scored his team-leading 18th goal.
NOTES: Colby Armstrong had an assist while starting at centre for the Maple Leafs just three days after the cornea in his right eye was scratched by a sucker-punch from Atlanta’s Ben Eager. … NHL commissioner Gary Bettman attended the game during his swing through California. He reiterated the league’s reluctance to host a Winter Classic in Los Angeles, but suggested the Kings could get a shot to be the visiting team in an upcoming outdoor game, perhaps in New York.