VANCOUVER, Canada — Maybe it's easier to believe in Santa Claus when your owner--jolly Bruce McNall--would be a dead ringer in the right red suit, and you wake up in the middle of summer and Wayne Gretzky is already under your tree, wrapped in a black-and-white package.
"I don't really know when I stopped believing in Santa Claus," said goalie Glenn Healy, who kept the Vancouver Canucks from crashing the Kings' Christmas party Friday night by withstanding a 50-shot Vancouver salute until Gretzky's 2 empty-net goals ensured a 5-2 victory before 16,138 at the Pacific Coliseum.
"In some ways," Healy said, "I still believe in him. When your kids are growing up, you put cookies out for him and you still take the kids to the mall to see him, so I guess you keep believing.
"I just know he's not coming down my chimney, because I don't have one in L.A."
Clearly, the Kings don't need a calendar to know 'tis the season to be jolly, not when they can look at the National Hockey League standings and see they're only 3 points away from the best record in the league.
Calgary, a 4-1 loser to Edmonton Friday night, is 2 points ahead of the Kings in the Smythe Division--51 to 49--while Montreal, which visits the Forum next Tuesday in the Kings' next game--has 52.
Healy said he heard the public address announcer at the Pacific Coliseum tell the crowd that Calgary lost Friday night.
"It spurred me on," he said.
Imagine the Kings worrying about the elite teams in the league, instead of fretting about making the playoffs. Wayne Gretzky does. He was listening, too.
"Last year, I would have never followed a Vancouver-L.A. game," said Gretzky, whose empty-netters gave him 28 goals for the season and 611 for his career, 1 more than Bobby Hull to make him fourth on the all-time goal-scoring list.
"Now, it's a different story. Instead of worrying about bottom-place teams, we're fighting for first place. . . . I don't think anybody's made that jump before."
The Kings, despite being outshot, 14-4, in the first period, got the jump on the Canucks, 2-0, when Bobby Carpenter and Mike Krushelnyski, two players who have had a horrendous time putting the puck into the net, scored 59 seconds apart in the second period.
Carpenter had scored only 2 goals in his previous 18 games, while Krushelnyski had 1 in his previous 19.
Carpenter, in fact, was yanked off Gretzky's line at the start of the night--he was replaced by John Tonelli--before Coach Robbie Ftorek put the left winger back with No. 99.
"The surprise was not that he took me off (Gretzky's) line but that he put me back on, in the middle of the first period," said Carpenter, who beat Canuck rookie goalie Troy Gamble from in front after Gretzky had stolen the puck from Canuck center Brian Bradley.
Carpenter grinned. "What did Gretz get, 4 points? It just goes to show you he can't play without me."
Krushelnyski got a gift when Vancouver defenseman Harold Snepsts fanned on a clearing pass deep in the Canuck zone, which allowed the King center to slip a shot between the legs of Gamble.
Both goals came after Vancouver had outshot the Kings, 3-2, while the Kings had a five-man power play, the result of Vanocuver defenseman Garth Butcher delivering the butt end of his stick into the face of Mike Allison.
Butcher received an automatic game misconduct for the major stick penalty, just as Krushelnyski would in the third period, when he was whistled for spearing Vancouver's Paul Reinhart.
That was Krushelnyski's second major stick penalty--he was called for a high-sticking major Dec. 6 against Winnipeg--which means he's automatically suspended for the next game.
Allison, however, recovered from Butcher's stick facial to extend the Kings lead to 3-1 with 41 seconds left in the second period. Bradley had cut the lead to 2-1 at 16:40, but when McSorley was pushed from behind into Vancouver goalie Gamble outside of the crease, Allison had a wide-open net.
Vancouver came within one again, 3-2, on Trevor Linden's goal at 4:33 of the final period, but couldn't pull even, despite outshooting the Kings, 24-8, in the final period.
Healy's best combination of saves came when he stopped Barry Pederson on a breakaway, and then kicked out Tony Tanti's rebound. Tanti became so frustrated, he decked Healy in the crease after play had turned up ice, drawing a roughing penalty.
"He just gave me a push," Healy said. "He's a strong kid."
Two nights before, Healy had given up three goals on the game's first three shots and was yanked after a five-goal first period.
"I was physically and mentally tired from the night before," Healy said, referring to a 7-3 victory over Calgary. "I knew it and I felt it."
Friday, he registered his league-leading 18th win.
No wonder Dave Taylor said: "I still believe in Santa Claus. What are you talking about?"