Kings in playoff mode with ‘gritty’ win over Canucks

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VANCOUVER — Time and space for the Los Angeles Kings and Vancouver Canucks might as well have been buried beneath the Rogers Arena ice surface. Those common refrains in hockeydom were nearly nonexistent between playoff-bound teams that spent Monday night giving a preview of what’s ahead.

Chances are the Kings and Canucks won’t meet in the first round the way both are going. If these teams did — or do due to some late-season seeding shuffling — Los Angeles can feel good about the postseason collision. This matchup is tilting in L.A.’s favor.

The Kings have taken two of the three games in the season series and both wins have come here in decisive fashion. Now their 3-2 triumph Monday doesn’t have the separation of their 5-1 beatdown back on Feb. 29, but the score of this latest tilt doesn’t come close to reflecting how they throttled the Canucks.

Consider this: Brock Boeser pulled the hosts within a goal with 2:53 left as Canucks coach Rick Tocchet had more than 90 seconds before pulling goalie Casey DeSmith for a sixth attacker. Boeser’s goal was a fluke as it was an intended pass that ricocheted off the skate of Kings captain Anze Kopitar. Until then, Los Angeles gave them nothing outside of Sam Lafferty’s nice first-period goal.

“This time of year, we have to play playoff hockey right now just to get in,” Kings winger Trevor Lewis said. “I think everyone’s been relaying that message and I think these past few games here, we’ve really tried to put a focus on that. We’ve done a good job with it. We just got to keep going because this one you got to build for when the playoffs start.

“You can’t just flip on a switch and be able to play playoff-style hockey. You got to start now and just keep going.”

As Boeser led the procession by the Canucks bench following the goal, there was no exuberant celebration to spark a rally. Mostly, the group of six that bumped fists with teammates looked gassed and worn as if it’s taken games full of playoff blows with a foe that’s looking like a terrible matchup for what still figures to be the Pacific Division champion.

“It was not a whole lot of room out there,” Kopitar said as they didn’t allow the Canucks to clinch a playoff spot on their watch. “Gritty game. Physical. Emotional.”

The Kings don’t mind it being that way in winning their fourth straight, which kept Vegas at bay for third place in the Pacific. But they also pulled within a point of second-place Edmonton, whom they take on Thursday. The Oilers still have the edge of having two games in hand and that looks like a showdown for the third straight spring unless some slippage from either drops them a slot in the Western Conference playoff picture.

If it’s L.A.-Edmonton again, it’ll be another battle over six or seven games and the Kings will have to prove they’re ready to vanquish their nemesis. Thursday’s game could be a preview of that. But their work Monday night against the Canucks — with one final regular-season meeting on April 6 in Los Angeles — showed how they might be the favored team should they clash at some point.

They would never trail. Kevin Fiala put them on the scoreboard first thanks to a terrific setup by Pierre-Luc Dubois as Viktor Arvidsson’s supportive secondary assist showed how his return is something Dubois is feeding off as the two should be the basis of a potentially dangerous third line. Lafferty tied it when he got past rookie Alex Laferriere on a cut to the net and wrapped a shot around the outstretched Cam Talbot.

That was it for the Canucks as the Kings put the clamps on them up until Boeser’s fortunate bounce. Talbot was solid again and made the stops he had to make in a winning 21-save effort. But it was largely his teammates frustrating the Canucks with the kind of hockey that wins playoff games. Tight checking. Support play all over the ice. Battles won at both nets.

Take the score that put Los Angeles up for good. Blake Lizotte shot the puck toward the net that would hit one of Carson Soucy’s skates and then the other as he tried to find it, only for him and DeSmith to see it trickle into the net. But the play was an extended possession that started when Lewis drew a delayed penalty on Soucy. And it was Lewis who eventually gained position on Soucy at the net.

In the postgame, Kings coach Jim Hiller took the time to point out the elements that Lewis has and why he’s still needed at age 37.

“It’s hard to be in the league, never mind at his age,” Hiller said. “Why is he in the league? Because he understands what playoff hockey is. He’s a champion. And he does that night after night, whether it’s game three or game 71. It doesn’t matter for him. That’s why he’s still here and still contributing and still such an important part of our team.”

Added Lizotte: “If there was a statistic of unrecognized points for a team, he would be at the top of the NHL. He does so many things that help win every night.”

The Kings brought back Lewis on a one-year deal after three years away following 12 in Los Angeles that included two rides in championship parades. Lewis played in the postseason with Winnipeg and Calgary, but 79 of his 99 playoff games came with the club he’s most associated with. He’s long been a fourth-line grinder and part of his return was about improving a disappointing penalty kill that was exposed by Edmonton in the playoffs.

But another effect of having Lewis in the dressing room is how he can convey how different playoff hockey is from what takes place through the regular schedule. How Monday’s game was like, where there were no odd-man rushes. Those become rare when Game 1 starts. This approached that atmosphere.

“They’re a good team and we knew we were going to have to play our best to win that game,” Lewis said. “And I thought we did a good job. When it comes to these games, there’s not a lot of time and space anyway. You got to be patient and keep doing the little things all night. Chipping the puck in and going after their (defensemen). Trying to wear them down.

“You got to grind it out. Once you do that and you get them a little tired, you get those breaks and you got to capitalize on your opportunities.”

Offense was tougher to come by for the Kings than on their three-game homestand sweep. They only managed 19 shots on goal and had just 16 other attempts. But they got a needed insurance goal from Kopitar following a strong possession shift from the top line and then pulled off a master class against Vancouver’s top offensive threats.

Vancouver’s leading scorer J.T. Miller, with 34 goals and 91 points, got a secondary assist on Boeser’s goal but had only three shot attempts. Elias Pettersson, with 33 goals, 84 points and a $92.8 million contract extension, also had only one shot on goal among his four attempts. Boeser got his team-leading 37th goal but that was his only shot on goal, which wasn’t headed there until it bounced in off Kopitar. “Yeah, I just apologized for that goal,” Kopitar said, sheepishly. “That one’s on me.”

But the third period until Boeser’s score had Miller having a lengthy conversation with referee Chris Lee during a stoppage. Pettersson was silent and the only noise Boeser made until his goal was an interference penalty when he threw a pick on Drew Doughty. As usual, Doughty led a focused effort from the back end. The NHL’s minutes leader chewed up more than 25 on Monday and while he got whistled for tripping while preserving the one-goal lead, the Kings’ top-ranked penalty kill took care of the final 20.6 seconds.

Hiller shook away the notion that the Kings took them off their usual prolific game. He was also being kind. Because that’s what his team did.

“I don’t think they were frustrated,” he said. “I think they understood. Like we understood about them, they’re a strong defensive team, too. So, it’s hard to get chances. It really is. And I think that’s the challenge for the players. You go out there and you just keep playing and playing. Players like to score. They like to make good passes, all those kinds of stuff and there’s just not a lot of room to do that.

“I think both teams understood that. It was just a battle. Plain and simple, a battle. Both teams went at it hard, and we got on the right side of it.”

(Photo: Bob Frid / USA Today)

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