The Kings reached the halfway point of the season Saturday with an ugly victory that resembled the ups and downs of the preceding three months. More important, they secured the services of defenseman Jack Johnson for seven years with a contract extension that will kick in next season.
Following their too-well established pattern, the Kings started forcefully but made a series of errors to turn what should have been a romp into a serious dose of anxiety. The Blue Jackets twice pulled to within a goal in the third period but the Kings held on for a 6-4 triumph that ended their season-worst losing streak at five games and halted a four-game losing streak on this homestand.
Jarret Stoll scored twice and Johnson had three assists as the Kings improved to 23-17-1 at the midway point. They were 23-15-3 midway through last season.
"We definitely needed that win even though at times it was kind of ugly," said Johnson, who signed his seven-year, $30.5-million deal after the morning skate. "We'll take it any way we can get it. A win's a win."
Johnson will earn $3.5 million in each of the first three years of his new deal and $5 million in each of the last four years. That produced a manageable salary-cap hit of about $4.35 million a year.
"We had talked about numerous options and situations. I had no problem committing that long," said Johnson, who will be 24 next week. "We were just trying to find something that was reasonable and fair for both sides. I think we're both very happy about it."
General Manager Dean Lombardi said via cell phone he had researched comparable players' salaries and talked to Johnson at length before agreeing to terms. Johnson, incidentally, represented himself.
"One of the things that was really impressive about this kid is he never wavered from his commitment and from saying, 'I want to be here for the full process,' " Lombardi said. "Not a lot of kids today are willing to commit.
"I don't see complacency as an issue. He's made tremendous progress the last 12 months. He's not the type to stop improving. This is a big step for us."
It also set the stage for negotiations with Drew Doughty, whose contract expires after this season. Lombardi said he and Doughty's agency have "started sketching things and kicking tires but it made sense for us to focus on Jack first. We knew we were going to have the best chance of a long-term deal with Jack. Obviously we'd like to do Drew long-term, too but we focused on this first."
The Kings' focus was unexpectedly tested Saturday.
They had a 4-0 lead by 7:12 of the second period, by Dustin Brown on a beautiful backhand pass from Anze Kopitar, a power-play blast by Alec Martinez and even-strength and shorthanded goals by Jarret Stoll, who has scored three goals in two games after an 0-for-15 drought.
But a giveaway by Brown led to Columbus' first goal, at 13:30 of the second period, and couple of puckhandling gaffes by Jonathan Quick allowed the Blue Jackets to build momentum. They pulled to within 4-3 before Ryan Smyth rebounded a Justin Williams shot at 16:29 of the final period, and made it 5-4 on Nash's goal past an out-of-position Quick.
Williams scored into an empty net for the final margin, with 31 seconds left, but it shouldn't have come to that.
"When you get a 4-0 lead like that you want to just play the right way," Coach Terry Murray said. "Your goaltender has to stay real sharp, do the right stuff, keep it simple, just stop the puck?. I think when he's on his game those are easy plays for him."
Kopitar said that before the game alternate captain Matt Greene talked to the team about the importance of capitalizing on getting defenseman Willie Mitchell and left wing Alexei Ponikarovsky back from injuries.
"He said to take a look around the room. We're as healthy as we've been all year right from the get-go and we added Sturmie to the lineup, too," Kopitar said, referring to Marco Sturm.
"Those are the guys. I'm pretty sure there's not going to be any major changes and we have to feel comfortable with everybody that is here and we have to trust everybody we're going to do the job."
They got it done Saturday, though without style points.
"This game was a good indicator of our half of the season so far but we all know that can't happen again," Kopitar said. "The second half is going to be good. We finished the first half on a good note with two points."
And with Johnson poised to pick up the tab at the next team meal. Said Kopitar: "Most important is I'm going to get a free dinner out of it."