Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 3/21/12
Smiles were again contagious at ice level after the Los Angeles Kings' 5-2 victory over the San Jose Sharks Tuesday night, with Darryl Sutter laughing as he recalled how Dustin Penner channeled his inner Moose during his momentum-shifting third period insurance goal. "Good for him," Sutter said. "He moved his feet and shot on the fly. He looked like Mark Messier." Sutter and the Kings have earned the right to joke around, because when it comes to many of the minor things that win hockey games -- strong starts, establishing a forecheck, continually moving feet, winning boards and puck battles -- Los Angeles has graded quite high during its March turnaround and now occupies the eighth overall spot in the West. With opening goals in 10 of 12, at least three goals in 10 of 12 and the familiar deep and versatile defense playing in front of Vezina Trophy candidate Jonathan Quick, it's not surprising that the team has rattled off five in a row, the club's first five-game winning streak since early in the 2010-11 season. Not only have they added Jeff Carter, they've added to their compete level. "I thought they were harder along the boards, they won more board battles, they came up with loose pucks on their forecheck more than we came up with ours," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said after Tuesday's game. "They used their size and they used their board play to their advantage, especially in the second period - that wore us out a little bit. They knew we played the night before." Some of the board play McLellan referenced was the byproduct of Dwight King staying strong on the puck and creating space for linemates Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. The Kings are a bigger team since his recall, along with Jordan Nolan. "In your D-zone, you need wingers that can win that battle against the D-man to break pressure out of the zone. And they do it. They're very good along the walls," Willie Mitchell said about King and Nolan. "I know it's something Darryl stresses with them, but they've answered the bell and done it tremendously. Those guys are some of your most important guys on your team this time of the year." On a night in which Anze Kopitar performed as an elite center, Justin Williams buzzed along through seams in the offensive end and Mike Richards chipped in with a trademark shorthanded goal, it was still the plumbing and high compete level brought by two rookies that led to an extremely important win on a night in which Dallas, Phoenix, Colorado and Calgary all earned points in head to head battles. "They've done a tremendous job for us as far as winning puck battles," Mitchell said of King and Nolan. Big guys who can get the puck for us into the hands of our players who are good with it. That's what you need, right? You need the puck to score goals and we're having guys win battles and hold onto pucks and if we continue to do that, we should get to where we want to be." Kyle Clifford, two years younger than both King and Nolan, is another player who provides the intangible efforts described above by Mitchell as one of the "important guys." Known in junior hockey as a player with a greater grasp of fundamentals over flash, he endeared himself to Los Angeles' scouting staff as a 17-year old by critiquing his own performances on the criteria of getting pucks deep and using the boards to clear the zone instead of simply on goals and assists. "I think for us wingers, we've just got to continue on the board battles, the little parts of the game, getting pucks out, making sure they're getting deep," Clifford said. "That frustrates other teams ... and creates more room for us to get more opportunities offensively." If there's any team that is encouraged by ranking 28th in the league in offense, it's the Kings, whose dead-last goals-per-game ranking for much of the year has given way to an outfit that all of a sudden has contributed to a plus-12 goal differential, the best amongst the teams they're competing against for a playoff spot. They'll need a similar effort over all 200 feet when they face a stiff challenge against the league's top defensive team on Thursday, followed by a visit from a Boston team that scored eight times against Toronto on Monday. "We're trying to take advantage of what we have at home. It doesn't get any easier," Sutter said. "We play the best team in the league and the defending Stanley Cup champions back to back. I don't think where we are right now means much to me. We're thinking about St. Louis." NOTES: Sutter, on Alec Martinez: "We've got to get minutes out of him. It's real simple. I think when made the Johnson deal, that was going to put Voynov and Marty, and Drew Doughty in more situations than they haven't been used to. I don't put him any different than Slava. They've got to produce. One is a lefty, one's a righty and they've got to produce for us." ... Los Angeles is 9-3 in its last 12 games and has outscored its opponents 42-25. ... The Kings are 13-4-5 against the Pacific Division. ... Anze Kopitar has seven points (4-3=7) over a four game point streak and 14 points over his last 11 games.
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