LOS ANGELES — From a long shot out of training camp to the first star of the game in a playoff-clinching victory, Kings rookie Kyle Clifford might just be the team’s best story this season.
Clifford scored the tying goal late in the second period Wednesday night and the deadlock continued until the Kings beat the visiting Phoenix Coyotes in a shootout, 3-2, punching their ticket to the Stanley Cup playoffs for the second consecutive year.
“He has gotten better as the season has gone on and the games have become more important,” said teammate Jarret Stoll, who scored the other goal in regulation for the Kings and one of two in the shootout. “Those are signs that him, as a young first-year player coming in, that’s huge to see.”
When rookie camp began seven months ago, the Kings were expected to have a newcomer or two on the roster this season, but Clifford wasn’t projected to be on that list.
The 19-year-old from Ontario, Canada, possessed a rock-solid work ethic, bubbling desire and quickly demonstrated he wasn’t afraid to drop the gloves and unleash a torrent of lightning-quick blows, but his play on each end of the ice was about as unrefined as highway rock salt.
Then, a week before the start of the season, Clifford’s close childhood friend, Ben Pearson, died at the age of 20 of a rare disease that didn’t allow his body to process protein.
Pearson’s death hit Clifford hard, but it also served to further motivate him, reminding Clifford how precious life can be and how lucky he was to be in his situation.
The coaches noticed too, electing to award him a roster spot for opening day. He played in a couple of games, watched a couple from the press box as a healthy scratch but quickly convinced Kings’ management to play him full time and keep him beyond his first 10 NHL appearances, which is the deadline to send him back to his junior team or pay him his full NHL salary for the season.
“You take a look at what you’ve got in training camp, with these young players and you have to make a projection,” Kings coach Terry Murray said. “That’s the only way he can be on the team. If he stays the same way that he is here today, in the training camp and out of these exhibition games, that’s probably not going to be good enough.”
It took Clifford 22 games to score his first NHL goal, an unintentional deflection off a shot from Wayne Simmonds, but he had already gained popularity among Kings fans and respect from his teammates for his willingness to drop the gloves and give both a spark.
He scored his second career goal 10 days later in Chicago, added two more goals in January, none in February and two in March before scoring the biggest goal of his career Wednesday night, and effort that could end up as his trademark.
He began the play by jarring the puck loose with a stiff check in front of the Los Angeles bench. The puck made its way to defenseman Rob Scuderi, who passed ahead to Simmonds who was darting down the left side. Simmonds spotted Clifford crashing hard down the middle and slid a pass in his direction. Clifford did the rest.
“Me and Simmonds kind of read off each other,” Clifford said. “I just drive to the net and he makes a great play and gives me an easy tap in.”
Perhaps unnoticed has been the promotion of Clifford, Simmonds and Brad Richardson to the top line. The move was prompted by injuries to previous top liners Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, as well as the 10-game slump by Dustin Penner. The trio had spent a majority of the season playing on the third and fourth lines.
Murray likes the nose-to-the-grindstone style they bring, even if it lacks much of the finishing touch of a typical top line.
“We all complement each other,” Clifford said. “We all have similar games. Richie is feisty, gets in on the forecheck, got great speed and so does Simmer. We just keep it simple and go to the net hard.”
It's a style that's sure to come in handy in their final two games, at Anaheim on Friday night and home against the Ducks on Saturday. Two victories would clinch fourth place in the Western Conference and home-ice advantage for the first round of the playoffs.
“These are important games,” Clifford said. “We’re battling for home-ice here, so we’re definitely going to keep focus and keep the success we have going for the next two games.”