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Gretzky Fires Up Kings, 7-0 : Hockey: He edges closer to Howe's record with third-period goal. Team finally shows some life amid rumors that Melrose will be fired.

March 16, 1994|LISA DILLMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The day started with reports of Coach Barry Melrose's demise and ended with Wayne Gretzky inching closer to Gordie Howe's all-time record of 801 goals.

Gretzky had one goal and three assists in the Kings' 7-0 victory over the hapless Ottawa Senators at the Forum on Tuesday night before a sellout crowd of 16,005.

Gretzky had gone without a goal in four games, and it was the first King victory in five games and second in 15. A penalty against Tony Granato late in the first period nullified what appeared to be Gretzky's first goal.

His third-period goal came in deep at the right crease at 3:15 as he finished off a two-on-one with Robert Lang, leaving Gretzky two goals from tying Howe's NHL record. He had six shots on goal against the Senators.

"I didn't have much to do with it," said Gretzky, "I just put it in the nets."

For the record, Gretzky's 799th NHL goal came against Ottawa goaltender Craig Billington, who replaced starter Mark LaForest at 12:44 of the first period. The Senators have lost nine consecutive games.

Also, it was King goaltender Kelly Hrudey's first shutout of the season, 16th of his career, and the 10th-place Kings (23-36-10) moved within seven points of the eighth-place San Jose Sharks, who are in the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

In between, there were the usual bizarre twists and turns that one comes to expect from the Kings. After the morning skate, Melrose's self-help guru, Anthony Robbins appeared for the first time this season and spent more than two hours with the team, attempting perhaps to awaken the defenseman within.

Later, King owner Bruce McNall denied that Melrose was about to be fired and offered words of support. McNall was responding to a New York Post report on Tuesday--"Kings Set to Ax Melrose," which quoted an unidentified source.

"He has my support," McNall said. "There will be no coaching change the rest of the season.

"I think everyone is trying to find an answer. That's the bottom line."

Said Melrose: "I find it kind of humorous because they finally got a coach here who has won something and took them where no one else has ever taken them. John Paddock has a losing season in Winnipeg and they make him GM. Now they want to burn me at the stake.

"Mr. McNall believes in me and I believe in him. If we don't win, I deserve to be fired. I'll move on like a hired gun."

McNall would not speculate about the future of any of his executives or coaches beyond the regular season, which is understandable because the Kings could be the first team in 24 years to miss the playoffs after reaching the Stanley Cup final the previous season.

Everyone connected with the Kings deserves a certain amount of blame in regard to the lousy season, including the players. McNall said that perhaps the King players would be held more accountable in a different city. Melrose, too, has criticized the Los Angeles media for being too soft on the team.

"The coach can only do so much," McNall said. "It (a change) gets the players off the hook one more time. He works hard and he's trying hard. How can you make the change?"

Rumors surrounding a losing team are hardly unusual. Last month, a Toronto newspaper reported that club president Roy Mlakar and General Manager Nick Beverley would not be around next season.

"Problems start at the top," McNall said. "The top isn't Roy and Nick, it's me. Part of it may be that I haven't been around as much--not able to be the mediator."

Melrose taped an interview with Prime Ticket before the game and made a point to say hello to his parents in Kelvington, Canada: "I'm still here. I haven't been fired."

King Notes

Forward Tony Granato had one assist as he returned to the lineup after serving a 15-game suspension for clubbing Chicago defenseman Neil Wilkinson over the head on Feb. 9. . . . King defenseman Marty McSorley, suffering from a pulled stomach muscle, did not play the final two periods.

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