BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The Kings probably deserve an "F" or at best a "D" for the first half of the National Hockey League season.
When the season began last October, Coach Pat Quinn said his goal was to finish in second place in the Smythe Division behind the Edmonton Oilers, the two-time Stanley Cup champions.
But Quinn's dream quickly turned into a nightmare as the team got off to a horrible start and became stuck in last place.
However, the Kings are starting to improve.
They completed the first half with a 4-3 win over the Minnesota North Stars Friday night before 10,553 fans at the Met Center.
The Kings have won three of their last four games, have moved within a point of Winnipeg and Vancouver, who are tied for third in the Smythe Division, and have a 13-23-4 record at the midway mark of the 80-game regular season. They were 16-16-8 at the same point last season.
"We've been below average in all departments, and our goals-against has been disastrous--there's no excuse for that," Quinn said when asked to grade his team. "But our last seven or eight games have been real good. We've only had one or two stinkers.
"If we continue to improve, we'll make the playoffs."
Said Dave Taylor, the King captain: "The first half has been bad, but I think we're close to .500 in our last 10 games. We're starting to play better hockey and we're more confident."
In some ways, the game against the North Stars reflected the Kings' inconsistent season.
The Kings blew a 2-0 first-period lead as the North Stars scored two straight goals in the second period.
However, left wing J.P. Kelly and defenseman Jay Wells scored consecutive goals as the Kings came back to take a 4-2 lead. North Star right wing Dirk Graham scored the game's final goal, with 2:52 left.
The North Stars pulled goalie Don Beaupre for an extra skater with 49 seconds left, and they had some good scoring chances in the last 10 seconds. But King goalie Bob Janecyk made a nice save on a point-blank shot by left wing Steve Payne with two seconds left in the game to seal the win.
"They were really swarming the net, taking any shot they could," Janecyk said. "They had a couple of good chances with two seconds left. Payne's shot hit the end of my stick, and it sat there until the clock ran out."
The Kings, who had been embarrassed by Pittsburgh, 7-3, Wednesday night, started fast.
Left wing Phil Sykes scored his 10th goal of the season with 9:19 left in the first period off a pass from right wing Bryan Erickson.
Marcel Dionne, who had fanned on an earlier scoring opportunity, then scored a power-play goal with 7:55 left after taking a pass from defenseman Craig Redmond in the slot.
But the North Stars scored two straight goals at the start of the second period to tie it at 2-2.
Center Neal Broten scored a power-play goal on a rebound of a shot by defenseman Craig Hartsburg at 5:16 of the second period to close the score to 2-1. Janecyk was screened out of the play by center Scott Bjugstad.
Payne got his tying goal with 6:27 left in the second period when he scored an unassisted goal on a fluke play. Janecyk came out to stop Payne, and Payne's shot hit the left post. King defenseman Dean Kennedy tried to clear it out of the crease, but the puck hit his left skate and then went into the net after he fanned on it.
However, the Kings regained the lead with five minutes left in the period when Kelly scored off a pass from right wing Jim Fox.
"It was an important goal, because they were gaining the momentum," Kelly said. "I broke for the net, and I beat Beaupre low."
Wells gave the Kings a two-goal lead when he scored off a face-off with 4:18 left in the third period.
"It was one of the funniest goals I've ever scored," Wells said. "But either way, I scored, and we won.
"This has been a strange season. I predicted that we'd win 37 games when the season started, but we started out real bad. I think we're getting better. Luckily, the other teams (Calgary, Winnipeg and Vancouver) are having bad years, too."
King Notes The Kings end the five-game trip tonight against the St. Louis Blues. Owing to a quirk in the schedule, the Kings will play St. Louis three times in the next 12 days, including games at the Forum on Jan. 21 and 23. . . . The Kings play the New York Rangers Wednesday night at the Forum. . . . King left wing Dave (Tiger) Williams missed his third consecutive game with a shoulder injury. . . . Minnesota left wing Tony McKegney suffered strained neck muscles during a third-period collision, but he'll probably be able to play in tonight's game against Washington.