After nine consecutive road games, after visiting four different time zones, after playing on both sides of the border and on both coasts, the Kings finally returned Saturday to the cavernous confines of Staples Center to face the San Jose Sharks.
The Kings hardly looked like the same uncertain team that lost three consecutive games and was 3-4-2 while averaging only two goals per game during their extended absence from Southern California. They grabbed the game by the scruff of the neck and made it theirs, winning 3-2.
Kings center Jeff Carter got a step on the Sharks’ retreating defense and scored his team-leading 20th goal of the season to restore a two-goal advantage 3 minutes, 44 seconds after Brent Burns pulled San Jose to within 2-1 with a power-play goal 12 seconds into the third period.
Carter reached the 20-goal milestone for the 12th time in his 13 seasons in the NHL.
San Jose’s Kevin Labanc cut the Kings’ lead to 3-2 at 13:57, but the Sharks’ failed to overcome a poor start to the game. Tanner Pearson, in the first period, and Drew Doughty, on a second-period power play, gave the Kings a 2-0 lead after two periods.
The Kings outshot the Sharks 13-6 in the opening period and by 27-20 by game’s end.
“We played the whole game the way we want to play,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said after tying Jacques Martin for 13th place on the NHL’s all-time list with his 613th career victory. “We hadn’t played here for a long time. It was nice to play in front of our fans again.”
A loss would have dropped the Kings 11 points behind the Pacific Division-leading Sharks, not that anyone expected a tight race between the teams. Instead, the Kings moved within seven as the midpoint of the season nears. The Kings are 18-15-4; the Sharks are 23-13-1.
The matchup in goal Saturday featured two possible Pacific Division teammates when the NHL’s annual 3-on-3 tournament, er, All-Star Game is held at Staples Center on Jan. 29, with Peter Budaj starting for the Kings and Martin Jones in net for the Sharks.
Budaj was playing only because No. 1 goalie Jonathan Quick sat out for the 35th game after suffering a serious groin injury in the first period of the season-opening game Oct. 12 at San Jose. His play was hardly the reason for the Kings’ fifth-place standing going into the game.
In fact, Budaj’s statistics aren’t all that different from those of Jones after the third of five meetings between the Kings and Sharks this season. Budaj is 16-10-3 with a 2.03 goals-against average; Jones is 19-12-1 with a 2.11 goals-against average.
“Guys played great in front of me,” Budaj said. “We didn’t give up much. They’re a very dangerous team. They don’t need much to make it interesting, and they did. It’s a big game for us, a big two points. … It’s a grind, it’s a battle.”
Before the game, Sutter dismissed the notion that the Kings’ lackluster goal-scoring was keeping them from moving up in the standings. As ever, Sutter was more “interested in cutting scoring chances down and giving up easy goals-against.”
“Scoring goes, like, once in a while you don’t and once in a while you do,” Sutter said. “We’ve already done it several times this season. What’s wrong? I can’t score, and then when they do …. Hey, it happens. That’s the way it goes, but easy goals-against have hurt us since Christmas.”
Sutter referred to losses Wednesday to the Vancouver Canucks and Thursday to the Edmonton Oilers, when the Kings weren’t as sharp as they needed to be at either end of the ice. Returning to a cool, rainy Southern California seemed good for what ailed them, however.