LANDOVER, Md. — It appeared to be business as usual for the Kings here Tuesday night. After falling behind the Washington Capitals, 3-1, in the second period, the Kings seemed destined for their 27th loss in 34 road games this season.
Then, in a span of 50 seconds, Bernie Nicholls set up two goals and scored one to engineer a remarkable comeback. The Kings beat the Capitals, 5-4, before 12,210 in the Capital Centre.
"It was a game that we needed real bad," said Nicholls, who scored five points and his first hat trick of the season.
The Kings (27-35-8) remain six points ahead of the Vancouver Canucks, who beat the Quebec Nordiques, 4-2, Tuesday night, for fourth and final playoff spot in the Smythe Division.
Since the last time the Kings won on the road--Jan. 16--it has seemed that checking into hotels and losing games had become synonymous for the team.
"I think they understood the urgency of the situation," King Coach Mike Murphy said. "Vancouver has creeped up on us."
Murphy's team responded with a hard-working effort in the last two periods. In the first, the Kings allowed goals by Greg Adams, who also had a hat trick, and Kelly Miller to give the Capitals a 2-0 lead at 11:59.
Nicholls scored on a power play at 16:02 to make it 2-1.
The second period opened no differently than the first. The Capitals were working hard on defense and creating opportunities on offense. Adams scored the only goal of the period, at 13:51.
There was a change in the Kings, however. After one and a half periods of taking hits, they began to hit back.
"I think our record against the same type of teams is very bad; we don't do well against defensive teams," King forward Jim Fox said.
Nevertheless, the Kings have gone 3-0 this season against the Capitals. Nicholls thinks he knows why the Kings changed the flow of the game.
"In the second period, we matched them hit for hit," he said. "Then they saw they really couldn't out-hit us, and they stopped. I think that was a mistake. They tried to freewheel. We can score a lot of goals."
Nicholls' line started the freewheeling at 3:04 and ended it at 3:54. In the interim, the line had scored three goals and given the Kings a 4-3 lead.
"I can't remember ever getting three goals on one shift," Nicholls said. "I was a little worried that Mike (Murphy) wasn't going to let us come off (the ice). I got a little tired right then."
Nicholls set up the first goal on a backhand pass to defenseman Grant Ledyard. Ledyard's wrist shot beat Capital goaltender Bob Mason.
Nineteen seconds after Ledyard's goal, Nicholls' left a drop pass to Dave (Tiger) Williams at the top of the slot. Williams made a slap shot that tied the game, 3-3.
Nicholls scored at 3:54. Mason was then replaced with Pete Peeters.
"I thought he was shaky, even in the first period," Nicholls said of Mason's play.
Adams scored again, to tie it at 5:29, and it was left to Nicholls to score the game-winning goal.
Murphy was visibly relieved after the game, calling the win "a stepping stone."
"We feel we've got a competitive, good team," he said. "It can take a game like this to turn a streak like this (winless on the road) into a winning streak."
It would be premature to say this one win will halt the Kings' skid.
For Nicholls, his five points was the end of what Murphy called a mini-slump.
"Bernie's been one of the players that we rely on to carry the offensive slack for the team," Murphy said. "He's got to play like he did tonight, he's got to be in the middle of it."
There's little doubt that when the Kings traded Marcel Dionne to the New York Rangers a week ago, the burden of goal production fell upon Nicholls.
"I feel that's kind of what they want, I feel it's a responsibility I'd like to have," Nicholls said. "I feel confident I can do it. I'm glad they put the pressure on me to do it."
King Notes King defenseman Steve Duchesne has moved into seventh in the league in rookie scoring. . . . The Kings are pushing team captain Dave Taylor for the Masterton Trophy, which is awarded to the player who exemplifies preseverance, sportsmanship and dedication. Former King Charlie Simmer won the award last season. . . . Three former Capitals returned Tuesday night. Goaltender Al Jensen and forwards Bryan Erickson and Bob Carpenter were met with various degrees of enthusiasm by the Washington fans. Without question, it was Carpenter, who the fans love to hate. Each time he stepped on the ice, he was roundly booed. Carpenter had a well-publicized personality clash with Capital Coach Bryan Murray. . . . The Capitals are preparing to hire the University of Maryland strength coach to supervise the team's off-ice conditioning. Frank Costello, former Maryland track and field coach, was at the Capitals' Monday practice, taking notes. It was the first live hockey he had ever seen played. Most NHL clubs assign an assistant coach to oversee the players' conditioning.