The Los Angeles Kings got their first victory of the 2013 season Saturday evening, beating the Phoenix Coyotes 4-2 in a rematch of last season's Western conference finals. After a slow start to the season by the first line, the Kings got two goals from their top-line centerman Anze Kopitar, both in the second period. The first-line of Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and Kopitar combined for their first four points of the year, helping Los Angeles improve its record to 1-2-1 on the season.
The game was expected to be a heated battle after last season's playoff series produced hard hits and controversy. Dustin Brown was the center of attention last May, after knocking then Coyotes defenseman Michal Rozsival out of the series finale with a heavy hit. Dustin Penner would score the series-clinching goal moments later, sending the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals where they would eventually become the champions. The Coyotes were fuming in the hand shake line following the game, and captain Shane Doan had a few words for Brown.
Saturday's game was not as intense as the 2012 series, for the obvious reason that the teams' lives weren't at stake, but still the game provided some amusing moments.
Kopitar put the Kings ahead 1-0 with a wrist shot just 1:04 into the second period, but the Coyotes quickly tied the game less than three minutes later on a Mikkel Boedker goal. Kopitar would put the defending champs back in front with his second goal of the game just over a minute later. This time it was followed by a second consecutive goal, when Jeff Carter netted a rebound off a Simon Gagne slapshot.
Shane Doan opened the third period with a quick goal 22 seconds into the final frame, but that would be all the Coyotes would get. The Kings would add one more for insurance, as 23-year-old defenseman Jake Muzzin scored his first NHL goal, finishing the scoring at 4-2. Forward Kyle Clifford continued his impressive start, collecting an assist on the goal by Muzzin and improving his point total to five (1 goal, 4 assists) through the first four games. For the second consecutive game, Clifford replaced Penner (healthy scratch) on the second line, playing alongside Carter and Mike Richards.
There were some interesting moments throughout the game, likely extending from last year's emmotional series. Clifford and Kyle Chipchura squared off with one another in the second period, although it was mostly a sweater pulling contest. Then with the Kings already up by two goals, Doan and Richards would drop the gloves 14:25 into the final period, after Doan took a run at Brown and knocked him to the ice. It might have been one final shot at revenge for the Coyotes team captain, attempting to rekindle the love between the two teams and inject some life into his squad with just over 5 minutes remaining in the game. Richards stepped in quickly to protect his teammate, even though it pitted him up against a man three inches taller and 30 pounds heavier than him.
Phoenix had two goals disallowed in the game, including a late one by Radim Vrbata with 39 seconds left in the game. The officials blew the whistle thinking the puck was stuck underneath Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick. The puck was actually still loose and ended up crossing the goal line, but the goal had to be disallowed because the referees had already blown the play dead. A second period goal by David Moss was also waved off because of goalie interference.
The Kings' defense, along with Quick looked much better against the Coyotes, after giving up an uncharacteristic 10 goals in the first three games of the season. It was the team's offense that has hurt them so far this season, getting next to nothing from their top three lines. The Kings failed to score on the power-play again, including a 5 on 3 advantage that lasted for two minutes during the first period, running their slump up to 0 for 22 on the season. But still, the four 5 on 5 goals in Saturday's game was a positive sign, and may be enough to ignite the teams' anemic offense.
The Coyotes were without their number one goaltender, Mike Smith, because of a lower-body injury he suffered on Wednesday. It was a gift the Kings needed, facing backup and former Kings goaltender Jason Labarbera. Smith had a record of 38-18-10 with a .930 save percentage during the 2011-12 regular season, and was one of the hottest goalies on the planet during the Coyotes run to the conference finals last year.
Although the Coyotes are scoring at a much greater pace than last year, their defense has failed to find the same kind of effort it produced in 2011-12, when they were one of the better teams in hockey in their own zone. It also doesn't help when your number one goalie is unable to play due to injury. He was a large part of their success last year as the teams' last line of defense. The Coyotes have allowed 20 goals in five games in 2013.
Both teams needed a win badly, but the Kings arguably needed it more. With the victory, they avoid starting the season with a four-game winless streak for the first time since the 1997-98 season.
The Kings will return home after a three-game road trip to play the Vancouver Canucks on Monday at 7:30 PM PST.
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