Nothing has come easily for the Kings this season, and their battle will continue to Saturday's season finale.
Their 6-5 shootout loss to the San Jose Sharks Thursday night at Staples Center was a strange ending to a bizarre game. They knew before the opening faceoff that they had clinched a playoff spot thanks to Dallas' loss at Nashville, but their aim was to win the Pacific Division title and secure home-ice advantage.
They looked well on their way to that after taking leads of 3-1 and 4-3 -- and pulling even at 5-5 with 3:21 left in the third period on Justin Williams' second goal of the game -- but they were derailed when they couldn't beat Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi in the shootout and Jonathan Quick yielded a shootout goal to Joe Pavelski. The Kings scored four power-play goals but gave up three man-advantage goals to the Sharks, who also clinched a playoff berth Thursday. The teams will meet again Saturday in the last game of the NHL season.
What stood out most Thursday, though was that San Jose forward Ryane Clowe reached over from the bench to illegally play the puck and disrupted a rush by Kings center Jarret Stoll during the third period. Everyone in the building saw the stunning move except the two people who matter: referees Stephen Walkom and Brian Pochmara, so it wasn't penalized.
Would the Kings have won the game if Clowe hadn't interfered? It's impossible to say. But it should also be impossible for two referees to miss that blatant an infraction, and they did.
"It's a tough call, a tough play. You hope one of them could see that," Stoll said diplomatically.
He said Clowe "just poke-checked me, kind of. He definitely got the puck. . . . I totally over-skated it then. I think it was an odd-man rush but I had a little bit of back pressure behind me. I had a back-checker right there.
"Who knows what would happen on the play, but nobody's ever seen anything like that."
A league official said the play was "a missed call." Clowe said, "I have no idea what you guys are talking about."
What it all means is that the Kings can still win the Pacific but need the Phoenix Coyotes to lose their remaining two games. A victory by Phoenix on Friday would send the Kings tumbling to seventh.
"We are proud of what they have accomplished so far -- they fought through a lot of adversity and never quit -- they stuck together and showed they care," General Manager Dean Lombardi said via email. "They will draw on this experience as they move on to the next challenge."
The Kings scored once in the first, twice in the second and twice in the third Thursday, with center Anze Kopitar picking up three assists and Stoll recording his first goal in 34 games by poking in a rebound that gave the Kings a 2-1 lead. Defenseman Willie Mitchell also had three assists.
The Kings will open the playoffs on Wednesday. The NHL will announce the full schedule on Sunday.
Energized by the pregame announcement that Dallas' loss had ensured the Kings would finish in the top eight, the crowd began spontaneous chants that fueled the emotions on the ice. Both teams were feisty and played hard, and two fights broke out, giving the Kings a power play each time. Alec Martinez scored on one of them.
The Sharks tied it at 16:27. Jason Demers chased the puck in the right-wing corner and passed to Daniel Winnik before heading to the net. Winnik's shot was stopped but Demers was able to swat the rebound past Quick for his fourth goal this season.
The Kings killed off a major penalty against Kyle Clifford and a minor penalty on Doughty before San Jose closed within 3-2 late in the second period. The Kings went ahead, 2-1, on Stoll's goal, and Dustin Brown extended their lead to 3-1 when he finished off an odd-man rush with a shot from the right side that eluded Niemi at 13:19.
Thornton made it a one-goal game again at 19:32. Quick had gotten an interference penalty for pushing Dominic Moore behind the net, and Brad Richardson served the penalty. Defenseman Dan Boyle unleashed a booming shot that was deflected past Quick by Joe Thornton.
Clowe made it 3-3 at 1:10 of the third after he blocked a shot by Kings defenseman Slava Voynov and raced up the other way on a breakaway. The Kings connected on the power play again at 3:54, when Williams' wicked wrist shot flew past Niemi's right arm, but the Sharks converted another power play to match that at 4:55. Thornton made it possible by beating Kopitar on a faceoff in the Kings' end, and Patrick Marleau bested a screened Quick.
"We don't do anything the easy way," Stoll said, an understatement after a strange game and a strange season.