For those NHL fans wishing to see both more scoring and more fights, the 2004 Pacific Division Rookie Tournament was created just for them as scores soared and fists flew last weekend.
The Los Angeles Kings squad spent the first three days of the tournament controlling the play and winning games. On the strength of timely scoring and strong play from some of the very best of their prospect crop, the Kings would finish in first place in the standings with a 2-0-1-0 record and a berth in the Championship game. But it would be the final day of the tournament that left a bitter taste in their mouths and robbed them of the glory they had fought so hard to earn. A 7-2 loss to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks would mark the second time in two years that the Kings would place first in the standings yet lose in the Championship game.
The Kings were pitted against archrival Anaheim in their first game of the tournament. It was clear early that this would be a tight, hard-fought game as Kings goaltender Daniel Taylor looked to be putting his teammates into a scoring slump during warm-ups with a quick glove and great movement.
The first period would be no different for Taylor as his athletic saves would keep the game close. The only puck to beat Taylor would be on a jam-in try in the first period resulting from a scrum for a loose puck in the crease. Answering back, Denis Grebeshkov would pick up a loose puck and feed it to Petr Kanko for a one-on-none break who would beat the Ducks goaltender high glove side. A power play goal, on a four forward and one defenseman set, by Noah Clarke about one minute later would push the Kings into the lead at 2-1 after one period.
Taylor would leave the game midway through the second period in favor of recent college graduate Nathan Marsters. Marsters would be challenged early. Using his pads to cover the bottom of the net, the Ducks would find an easy target in the upper corners and exploited just that to tie the game at 2-2. But Marsters would have his revenge. Some excellent lateral movement across the crease and quick glove work would keep the game tied at two heading into overtime.
Ice conditions became a factor as players tripped over the blueline and the puck bounced uncontrollably. With less than a minute left in overtime, the Ducks would attempt a clearing pass out of their own zone only to hit Noah Clarke in the back. Tournament invitee Max Bull picked up the loose puck, gave it back to Clarke who beat the Ducks goaltender stick-side for the goal and the 3-2 win.
The exciting, back and forth game was characterized by great goaltending and energetic play. Petr Kanko and Noah Clarke were the most active Kings battling on the forecheck and breaking loose in open ice for great scoring opportunities. The hard fought win quickly slotted the Kings at the top of the standings and as the team to beat.
The offense rolls
Everything went right for the Kings in their second game of the tournament against the Phoenix Coyotes. They would pepper the Phoenix netminder with 45 shots in the afternoon, scoring on 11 of those shots. Ryan Munce would see his only action of the tournament and give up the only two goals Phoenix would score before being relieved by Japanese born goaltender Yutaka Fukufuji midway through the second period.
The Kings would lead at the end of the first period 3-2 as each team found great scoring opportunities. With only a single penalty, the two teams spent the period trying to get a feel for the game and develop a plan of attack for the next two periods. The Kings would find that plan for attack. As a result, Phoenix would get trampled under eight unanswered goals on 32 shots. With four goals in the second period, including two in a 1:12 span, the Kings would breeze to an easy victory.
Clearly the most explosive player on the ice that afternoon, Petr Kanko was the big story of the evening. Active all game and a threat from every inch of the ice, Kanko would snap off nine shots in route to a four goal, five point game. He would score at even-strength, earn a hat trick on the power play, and finish the night with a shorthanded goal. Invitees Scott Basiuk and Mike Lukajic would also contribute three points each. Noah Clarke also added a goal and an assist while quietly asserting himself as the brightest star of the tournament for the Kings.
Fit to be tied
The Kings brought five goaltenders to the tournament and split the first two games amongst Taylor, Marsters, Munce and Fukufuji. Barry Brust, the last of the goalies to see action, would start game 3 in net against the San Jose Sharks.
San Jose was embarrassed in a 6-2 loss to Anaheim in their previous game and saw the Kings as a perfect target to prove that they would not just roll over in this tournament. The Sharks would jump on the Kings and Brust early in the first period. The Sharks played assertive and up-ice on the forecheck, challenging the Kings defensemen deep in their zone and pressuring them into turnovers. This aggressive play put the Kings back on their heels early and the Sharks capitalized for a 3-0 lead after the first period.
An excellent effort on the penalty kill to start the second period would shift the momentum to the Kings. Mike Lukajic would cut the lead to 3-1 with a goal shortly after the penalty to Ned Lukacevic expired. Two minutes later, Kings top defenseman Denis Grebeshkov would add a power play goal and emerging star Greg Hogeboom would add a shorthanded goal to cap the scoring. This would be the second time the Kings scored at even strength, on the power play and shorthanded in a game for the tournament.
Deteriorating ice conditions would not allow any other significant scoring opportunities the remainder of the night and the game would end in a 3-3 tie, but not before the Kings could shake off the powerful play of the Sharks in the first period to salvage the tie.
By virtue of their 2-0-1 record, the Kings would earn a birth in the Championship game against the same team they began the tournament with – the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. While their first match was a tight 3-2 overtime win for the Kings, the Championship game would prove to be nothing of the sorts.
Anaheim would begin the game playing physical while stealing the momentum and jumping to a 4-1 lead midway through the second period. The Kings appeared tired, lifeless and content with just being in the Championship game while the Ducks, being led by Curtis Glencross, fed off the lack of emotion from the Kings and took every opportunity to beat them both on the scoreboard and along the boards.
Clearly frustrated with the lack of performance from the team, Noah Clarke played an inspired game in defeat. His goal in the second period would bring the score to 4-2 and breath some life into the team. But a goal by Glencross for the Ducks less than a minute later would seal the fate for this Kings team as the Ducks took a 5-2 lead into the second intermission.
Leaving the dressing room for the third period, the Kings gathered near the door leading onto the ice, heads down and as silent as a funeral save for the single angered look on Noah Clarke’s face.
What little life the Kings still had was concentrated in the clenched fists of Eric Neilson. Already spending time in the box for slashing and fighting in the first two periods, and jarring with several Ducks plays from within the box, Neilson was looking for one last chance to make his mark on the game. With about five minutes left in regulation, Neilson squared off with Ducks defenseman Jordan Smith for a fight that would bring the entire building to its feet. Punches on both sides landed cleanly on the chin as the crowd cheered the battle. Eventually ending out of exhaustion from both pugilists, the remaining five minutes of the period would be anti-climatic as the tournament ended in a blowout win by the Ducks, 7-2.
The standout star for the Kings was clearly winger Noah Clarke. With an assist and four goals on ten shots, Clarke was a factor in every game while providing solid leadership on the top scoring line. His smooth skating and smart play with an emerging ability to finish plays made him the primary threat for the Kings. Petr Kanko had a single offensive explosion in the second game, but was largely an agitator during the other three games. Having not taken a penalty in the entire tournament while drawing several from the opposition, Kanko’s affects were felt even when shutout from the scoresheet. Denis Grebeshkov was solid on the blueline even though his play would decline as the games wore on. Greg Hogeboom played an excellent all-around game and scored some timely goals in clutch situations. The speed of Matt Ryan and Connor James often collapsed the defense and opened up scoring opportunities for their teammates. However, at times it appeared James was attempting to do too much with his speed and occasionally he would over-skate the puck, leading to turnovers and scoring opportunities for the opposition.
There were also several unknown invitees that made a name of themselves at the tournament. Most notably, SUNYAC grad Mike Lukajic was the most offensively explosive of the invitees with three goals on 15 shots. Eric Fortier, who spent last season with the ECHL Greensboro Generals, also did a superb job skating on the top scoring line, holding his own with two goals and two assists. Recent RPI graduate Scott Basiuk, paired up with Grebeshkov on the blueline, looked solid with three assists in the Kings 11-2 win over Phoenix.
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