Dustin Penner of the Los Angeles Kings celebrates his goal as he skates past St. Louis Blues' Roman Polak during Friday's National Hockey League playoff game at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Kings defeated the Blues 2-1 to win the best-of-seven series 4-2.
Photograph by: Jae C. Hong, The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES -- In as closely-coached a series as this, you might think one would be enough for either team.
But Dustin Penner had about 18 of them yelling at him from the bench, all with the same message: “Shoot!”
He was a long way out, but he did as he was told, and his slapshot glanced off the stick of St. Louis Blues’ star-crossed defenceman Roman Polak, off the near post and past goalie Brian Elliott with 0.2 seconds remaining in the middle period.
The L.A. Kings took a 2-1 lead into the dressing room, and nursed that slender margin all the way to the house for a 4-2 series victory over the Blues and a date with another California team, Anaheim or San Jose -- they just don’t know which one yet -- in the second round of the playoffs.
It was the defending Stanley Cup champions’ fourth straight win after dropping the first two games in St. Louis.
“That’s kind of like a sweep, I guess,” chuckled Penner, who played a whale of a game, using his size and speed and a degree of tenacity he seems to save for the biggest of occasions.
The goal, he said, was “a fortunate break. The whole bench was yelling to shoot. They wouldn’t be yelling if there were 10 seconds left, so I knew I didn’t have much time.
“And it went off Polak’s stick. I’ll take it.”
“There were 15 guys on the bench yelling for him to shoot, and it sure seemed he was taking his time with it,” said Kings forward Mike Richards. “But he had a good game and a great series. He stepped up his game in a big way, scored some big goals and made some big plays for us. We probably wouldn’t have won the series without him.”
It was, let us say, an eventful evening for Polak.
The rugged St. Louis blueliner had backed deep into his zone on the Kings’ opening goal in the first period, frozen by a Drew Doughty fake slapshot, then missed the angle in trying to block the wrister that Doughty fired over Brian Elliott’s blocker.
He got a little of his own back when his point shot deflected off teammate Chris Porter’s thigh-pad and past Jonathan Quick to tie the game early in the second, but then the fun really began.
Polak’s turnover sent Kings captain Dustin Brown away on a clean breakaway that Brown somehow failed to convert into the go-ahead goal, instead crashing headfirst into the net and not even getting a shot away.
And then, on a play where he admitted he probably should have just skated away and left Elliott with a clear view of Penner’s Hail Mary on the final tick of the clock, Polak got just enough of it to fool the goalie, who was playing a fraction deep in his crease.
It was another workout for the famous Staples Center self-recalibrating clock, the intricacies of which Kings GM Dean Lombardi last year explained in exhaustive detail, after it hiccupped a couple of times before Doughty scored a last-second goal that beat Columbus.
You could look it up, but basically, it’s all about coulombs.
There was plenty of science in the bruising series, too, but the third period -- with the Blues desperately trying to equalize -- was all about effort.
“Relieved,” said Richards. “It was an extremely tough, close, hard-hitting series, and I think a lot of guys have some bumps and bruises. A couple of days here before Anaheim gets to play (Game 7 Sunday against Detroit), so we get some time to recover. But that’s a hard hockey team to play against over there. They grind it out, and we grind it out.
“I think it was after the last game somebody said whoever gets the last bounce or break in the series is going to win, and fortunately it was us.”
Indeed, Blues’ Patrik Berglund’s deflection hit the goalpost behind Quick with just over two minutes left. That’s how close it was. All six games were decided by one goal.
“Pretty sour right now,” said Blues captain David Backes. “It’s getting to be a broken record, but we still didn’t get the job done. Up two-nothin’, to lose four straight, it’s pretty sour. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.
“You only get so many years in the league. You only get so many times to the playoffs to try and make a run. This team was hot going into the playoffs, added pieces at the deadline, didn’t stand pat or sell. We took on some big players and were expecting better than this.”
“What I’m going to tell them is, it’s not good enough,” said St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team was swept by these Kings in the second round a year ago. “If you want to be a champion, it’s not good enough. You can’t allow the goalie to outwork you.
“We’re a pretty hungry group here, from management to coaches, to put a championship team together. I hope that our players, when they pause and reflect on this, they’re really, really pissed off. We brought everything to the beach, and didn’t get it into the water.”
“They got unlucky a few times, and we got lucky,” said Penner.
“But they don’t call it the second season for nothing. It’s a long grind, and it’s only 10 days in and guys are banged up. That’s when your will has a chance to shine through, and ours did.”
“When you’re the defending Cup champion, you have some experience in critical times … that you can really rely on,” Hitchcock said. “It’s familiar ground, and we’re not on that ground yet.”
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