Jeff Carter turned a dreary, low-scoring game into a cap-tossing celebration for the Kings on Monday night at Staples Center.
Carter, the team's most consistent forward throughout this lockout-shortened season, poked through the Nashville Predators' defensive curtain to score during a power play in the second period and added two goals in a span of 19 seconds in the third period, propelling the Kings to an emphatic 5-1 victory over a team that has given them fits.
Caps given out by a team sponsor ended up on the ice in piles as fans enjoyed a happy ending to what had been a largely joyless performance the first 40 minutes.
"It was a big game for us. Our last game in Vancouver we didn't have our best effort," Carter said of the Kings' 5-2 loss on Saturday.
"I don't think we started the game out particularly well but we stuck with it and played some great hockey in the third period."
They were limited to a season-low three shots in the first period and the same number in the second, yet managed to break open the game in the third and chase starting goalie Pekka Rinne after their fifth goal, by Dwight King, at 10:54 of the period.
In winning for the sixth time in seven games and eighth in their last 10, the Kings leaped from 11th to fifth in the ever-changing Western Conference standings. They also dispelled any lingering questions about whether they were suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover and would not be able to challenge for a second straight title.
The formula they used so successfully last season is working again — because they're putting in the work necessary to keep it going.
"To our credit we didn't get frustrated and we stuck with it," Carter said after increasing his team-leading goal total to 14 with his fifth career hat trick.
"It's pretty easy against them to get frustrated when they're stepping in front of everything and we're not getting much to the net."
In the third period, he said, "we had a little more speed to our game. We were getting on pucks in their end and playing physical and it was opening up holes for us."
Carter has found and created scoring chances all season, using his size, quick shot and sound instincts.
"He's been unbelievable for us, scoring some big goals," goaltender Jonathan Bernier said after running his career record against Nashville to 7-1 and extending his personal winning streak to five. "We need a guy like that who takes over, and he's doing it right now."
The Kings needed someone to take over Monday after slogging through a tight first period and equally grinding second period. Carter scored on the backhand at 5:28 of the second period, during a power play, after a shot by Slava Voynov — one of the Russian defenseman's three assists — popped up in the air and over to Jarret Stoll.
Carter struck again at 4:39 of the third period, set up on a lunging pass by Colin Fraser, and he completed the hat trick by tipping the puck away from Roman Josi and beating Rinne on a breakaway at 4:58. "I was just kind of playing in the middle there and was able to get a stick on it. It was a good guess on which way he was going," Carter said of his steal.
Mike Richards added a power-play goal at 7:40, scored on one knee from the right side, and King finished the scoring 3:14 later. Bernier lost his shutout at 13:05 but that was a footnote for a team that is beginning, again, to write headlines.
"The way the league is, there's very little momentum," Kings Coach Darryl Sutter said. "It's just about staying with your game and playing your game and that's hard to do all the time."
Difficult, sure. But more often than not, the Kings are playing the kind of game that got them so far so unexpectedly last spring.
VS. ST. LOUIS
Where: Staples Center.
On the air: TV: Fox Sports West. Radio: 1150.
Records: Kings 10-7-2; Blues 11-8-2.
Record vs. Blues: 1-0.
Etc. Blues goaltenders Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak shared the Jennings trophy last season for allowing the fewest goals, 165. This season, the Blues have allowed 60 goals in 21 games and ranked 18th in the NHL through Sunday's games, with a team goals-against average of 2.81 and team save percentage of .875.