LOS ANGELES, Calif. – When the St. Louis Blues won their season finale around the time Los Angeles and San Jose dropped the puck, the Kings and Sharks knew they were only playing for fifth place.
The Kings still played hard enough to head into their Stanley Cup defence with one more win.
Justin Williams scored in the third period, Jonathan Quick made 23 saves, and the Kings wrapped up the fifth playoff seed in the Western Conference with a 3-2 victory Saturday night.
Slava Voynov and Kyle Clifford also scored for the reigning NHL champions, who entered the regular-season finale in a fifth-place tie with the Sharks. Both teams had hoped to earn home-ice advantage in the first round, but the surging Blues didn’t stumble against Chicago.
So the Kings are headed to St. Louis, which sneaked past Los Angeles and San Jose in the last week. Los Angeles plans to fly to Missouri on Sunday, anticipating a Tuesday opener even before the NHL releases its playoff schedule.
“I think tonight was, I guess, a pretty good finish to the regular season,” said Anze Kopitar, who heads into the post-season with a 16-game goal drought. “We played a pretty solid game, and against a pretty good team, too, so we’re going to have to carry that over. Of course, there’s room for improvement, but we’re going to have to carry that work ethic right into Tuesday’s game.”
T.J. Galiardi and Logan Couture scored for the Sharks, who will begin their ninth consecutive playoff appearance at third-seeded Vancouver after losing three of their final four. Antti Niemi stopped 24 shots for the Sharks, who realized they had more to lose by picking up new injuries than by getting beaten at Staples Center.
“You want to win every game you play, but you don’t want to get hurt,” Sharks captain Joe Thornton said. “They were better than us, and now we know who we’re going to play.”
Although San Jose kept it close on Galiardi’s goal with 2:26 to play, Quick showed off his Conn Smythe Trophy form with a few sharp saves in the final minutes. Brad Richardson had two assists for the Kings, who played without suspended captain Dustin Brown.
“That’s just how we play the game,” Quick said. “We weren’t really worried about the result tonight. We wanted to just play a good game. … We weren’t really focused on the result as much as we were (on) how we played during the 60 minutes.”
Although home ice meant little to the Kings last season when they became the first eighth-seeded team to take home the NHL title, they finished the regular season with seven straight home wins since March 23.
“We had a great season, to be quite honest,” Los Angeles coach Darryl Sutter said.
The Kings swept St. Louis out of the second round in four straight games last spring. Los Angeles also won all three of its meetings with the Blues this season.
“They’re an improved team, obviously, from the last time we played them in the regular season,” Sutter said of the Blues, who have added defencemen Jordan Leopold and Jay Bouwmeester since then.
San Jose’s matchup also is conceivably favourable: The Sharks beat the Canucks in all three meetings this season as well. Vancouver beat San Jose in the 2011 conference finals.
“I felt the intensity of the game wasn’t quite where it would have been if one of these two teams could clinch home ice,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. “After that, I thought it was fairly evenly played game. … I think both teams were trying to get through the finish line and get ready for playoffs.”
The Kings were in position for a fourth-place finish in the West before losing consecutive road games earlier in the week at Minnesota and Detroit. Los Angeles also lost Brown to a suspension for a hit against the Wild, although he’ll be back for the playoff opener.
After a scoreless first period, Clifford took a shot that was blocked by Niemi, but popped over his head and slithered behind the goalie for Clifford’s seventh goal. Just 49 seconds later, Couture skated easily through the Kings’ defence and beat Quick for his 21st goal of the shortened season.
Voynov put the Kings back ahead on a deflected slap shot through traffic with a scoring chance set up by Los Angeles’ fourth line—a familiar theme from last season’s Stanley Cup run, when all four Kings lines produced offence regularly.
The officials didn’t call a penalty until 5 1/2 minutes into the third period. Los Angeles kept up its offensive pressure and boosted its lead with 8 minutes to play when Richardson went behind the net and found Williams out front for a one-timer.
NOTES: The Kings held San Jose without a shot in the first 8 1/2 minutes. … San Jose C Scott Gomez sat out his second straight game with soreness after a big hit from Dallas’ Erik Cole earlier in the week. … Five members of the world champion U.S. women’s hockey team attended the game: captain Julie Chu, Amanda Kessel, Hilary Knight and twins Jocelyne and Monique Lamoureux. The Americans beat Canada 3-2 in the gold-medal game of the world championships April 9, with the winning goal scored by Kessel, the younger sister of Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel.