PHILADELPHIA — From deep within a crowd of reporters, the Kings' ace rookie Luc Robitaille was trapped by relentless questioning and a sea of scribbling ballpoints. There was no escape but to hope for either laryngitis or daybreak.
It wasn't the first time Robitaille had drawn a crowd here Thursday night, but he had more difficulty ridding himself of these predators than he had in shaking the Philadelphia Flyer defensemen.
"Is that the rookie of the year in there?" King defenseman Jay Wells shouted in to Robitaille.
Robitaille is not yet the rookie of the year, but his two goals reflected his decisive domination of the other candidate for the award--Flyer goaltender Ron Hextall.
The Kings' 5-2 win in front of a sellout 17,222 in the Spectrum boosted Robitaille's stock for the Calder Trophy and the Kings' hold on the final Smythe Division playoff spot. The King (28-35-8) are eight points ahead of Vancouver, which plays Winnipeg at home tonight. The Flyers (43-23-6) are assured of a playoff spot but not reassured by this loss.
It was the first win for the Kings in the Spectrum since Nov. 3, 1983. Almost as rare, the Kings have now won two in a row on the road. They can thank Robitaille, who played as if the voting deadline was Thursday night. He leads all rookie scorers with 39 goals and 72 points.
"I think Luc just wrapped up the award," said linemate Sean McKenna. "I don't think Hextall was shaky, but I think after Luc's second goal he was going, 'Oh no, he's beat me.' He kind of let up."
Hextall, 22, leads the league in nearly every goaltending category, with a goals-against average of 2.99. But after allowing five goals in the first two periods--four in the second--Hextall was pulled. It was the third time in his last six starts that Hextall has been removed from a game.
"I didn't want to subject him to any more poor play on our part," Flyer Coach Mike Keenan said. "This could easily have been 10-2."
Rarely have the Kings had as many out-numbered attacks in their favor. This, against a team that has built its considerable reputation around a stingy, smart defense.
"We took a mental holiday," was how Keenan accounted for the numerous King 3-on-2 and 2-on-1 scoring chances.
With both teams checking closely, only two goals were scored in the first period. Murray Craven scored for the Flyers but Dave (Tiger) Williams' slap shot tied it.
The Kings blew it open in the second period. Bernie Nicholls' goal at 9:35 began a four-goal spurt by the Kings.
Robitaille's first goal, at 11:08, came on a breakaway. He picked up the puck at the Flyer blue line and charged Hextall.
The goaltender came out to the edge of the crease with Robitaille skating fast on the left side. He faked a shot then put the puck high to Hextall's glove side. With Hextall's coverage of the net (he's 6 feet 3 inches tall) Robitaille placed the puck in the only spot the goaltender could not reach.
"At first I wanted to put it between his legs, but I didn't have any room," Robitaille said. "Then I saw his glove low, and I went above it."
After listening to another wave of praise from reporters, who marveled at his shooting touch, Robitaille's modesty could stand it no longer. "Listen, it happened real fast. Don't think I'm that smart."
He was smart enough to beat Hextall and the Flyer defense again. Robitaille took a pass from Bob Carpenter to score and make it 4-1 at 13:33.
Hextall--who has been assessed an NHL-record 91 penalty minutes--dug the puck out of the net and sent it flying and then took a swipe at the ice with his stick. "I looked at him, and he looked real mad," Robitaille said.
Tim Kerr scored the other goal for the Flyers. It came right after a Philadelphia power play at 17:08 in the second period.
The Kings other rookie, Jimmy Carson, beat Hextall on a breakout to give the Kings a 5-2 lead.
That was it for Hextall. Glenn (Chico) Resch was in goal for Philadelphia at the start of the third period.
For the first time, Robitaille's teammates have made public acknowledgement of Robitaille's chance to win the Calder Trophy, which is voted on by 63 sports writers.
The scene in the King locker room after the game told the story: Robitaille was mobbed by the media and the rest of the team was ignored. The attention made Robitaille sheepish, and he launched into a litany of praise for his teammates, who were, of course, hovering within earshot.
"This is the first time anyone has said anything to me in the (locker) room," Robitaille said. "Jay Wells said something to me before the game and Tiger has been talking to me. I know that it is not good for me to think about it."
"Today, when I see the papers talking about him (Hextall), I knew I would have a good game. Today, I said to myself, 'I have to work extra hard and have a good game.' I knew we were going to win."