The on-again, off-again King playoff pursuit continued its schizophrenic course with dark despair turning into elation by the end of Sunday's 2-1 victory against the Mighty Ducks, which officially eliminated Anaheim.
After losing control of their own destiny on Friday in San Jose, the Kings (15-22-9) regained it at the Forum and can reach the playoffs with victories in the remaining two games, at Winnipeg on Tuesday and Chicago on Wednesday. Sunday was the first time the Kings have defeated the Ducks in seven games, stopping an 0-4-2 streak dating to last season.
"If we win, we're in," said right wing Rick Tocchet, who returned after sitting out 11 of the last 12 games. "A week ago, we would have taken it. If we don't win against Winnipeg and Chicago, we don't deserve to be in."
Tocchet spoke about what it might mean for the Kings to reach the playoffs.
"It'll give this franchise some respect, it's been taking a beating, a lot of stuff has been coming down," he said. "When you make the playoffs, you get instant respect. Once you're in, anything can happen."
So, how did they even get in position to make it with just two victories in their last 11 games, including a down-and-out performance against the Sharks on Friday?
San Jose, now in a three-way tie for eighth place with the Kings and Jets, opened the door a crack by losing to St. Louis before the start of the King-Duck game. Now, because one of the two remaining San Jose games is against Dallas, the Stars could fall out of the playoffs even though they currently have a three-point lead over the Sharks and Kings.
After the Shark loss, Wayne Gretzky and goaltender Grant Fuhr helped keep the door to the playoffs open. Gretzky scored his first goal in 11 games, on a first-period power play at 17:24, and earlier had an assist on defenseman Rob Blake's power-play goal at 13:14. Fuhr made 31 saves to record his first victory as a King and first since Jan. 20 when he was with the Sabres.
"Right now every game is a big game," said Fuhr, who is 1-6-3 with the Kings. "Today was just a steppingstone. I don't know if it was my best outing. It's been a long time coming between wins."
Said Gretzky: "He was the Grant Fuhr of old. He closed the door when he had to."
The Ducks (15-26-5) ran into a hot goaltender in each of their last two defeats, the Sharks' Arturs Irbe on Wednesday and Fuhr. They also hurt themselves by giving up two power-play goals in both games.
"He (Fuhr) came up large and we didn't get the puck upstairs on him," Anaheim Coach Ron Wilson said. "We had the same problem with Irbe. We lacked poise or something. I'm disappointed we lost. We threw everything at the net we could, particularly in the third period."
Duck center Stephan Lebeau said Fuhr was the difference. Fuhr could not be faulted on the only Duck goal, by left wing Todd Krygier at 10:46 of the first period, which came on a two-on-none attack.
"I think five-on-five, we were the better team," Lebeau said. "We had good scoring chances, and I think Grant Fuhr had a great game today. He proved why he is one of the best goaltenders ever to play the game. In big games, he always responds. His reflexes were sharp today. He saw the puck all the time. He was the Grant Fuhr we used to know."
And now the Kings move on for two more games on the Western Conference high-wire act.
"It's getting worse and worse," said King president and interim coach Rogie Vachon, speaking of the tension. "The first (game) was fun. Now we are getting tighter. But it's still fun."
King forward Eric Lacroix played one of his typical hard-checking games and even landed in an unusual place--on top of the Ducks' net after trying to leap over goaltender Guy Hebert. Hebert fell back in the net and hit his head on the crossbar and left with a mild concussion. Mikhail Shtalenkov, who played in relief on April 21 in Detroit, played the final 30:09 and faced 15 shots and allowed no goals. "I didn't try to get him, I don't care what people say," Lacroix said."