Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar, of Slovenia, celebrates his goal along with teammate Jarret Stoll as Nashville Predators right wing Joel Ward looks on during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, March 14, 2010, in Los Angeles. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Mark J. Terrill)
LOS ANGELES - While the Los Angeles Kings argued the finer points of interference, the Nashville Predators celebrated a California road trip that might have cleared up their path to the playoffs.
Patric Hornqvist scored the tiebreaking goal with 3:31 to play, Pekka Rinne made 18 saves and the Predators extended their mastery over the Kings on Sunday with a 3-2 victory.
Steve Sullivan and Colin Wilson also scored for the Predators, who posted back-to-back one-goal victories over Anaheim and Los Angeles after allowing six goals in the third period of a discouraging loss at San Jose three days ago.
After getting the better break on two strange instances of apparent goaltender interference in the third period at Staples Center, Nashville is firmly in seventh place in the Western Conference standings, just four points behind the fifth-place Kings and rising.
Although the Predators struggle to score and don't kill penalties well, they make up for their deficiencies with consistent, timely play that has Nashville coach Barry Trotz feeling good about the future.
"If we could re-do one period, then the rest of the trip we played pretty solid," Trotz said. "We had some emotional highs and lows on this trip, and when we can just play a solid game ... like that, we'll have the chance to pick up some points."
Nashville's seventh straight win over Los Angeles turned on two run-ins with goalies in the third period.
Ryan Smyth's slight contact with Rinne negated an apparent go-ahead goal for the Kings early in the period, while Martin Erat's contact with Los Angeles' Jonathan Quick not only wasn't penalized, but cleared a path for Wilson's tying goal just 39 seconds after captain Dustin Brown had put the Kings ahead.
"I've watched the replay two or three times, and it was exactly the same play," said Kings coach Terry Murray, who rarely comments on officiating. "At the other end, when we didn't get the call on the goal disallowed, I don't know why it was not a goal."
Both calls seemed a bit odd to both teams: The officials waved off Justin Williams' apparent goal by ruling Smyth had touched Rinne, yet they didn't send Smyth to the penalty box.
"I think if you're going to call it, then call it that way," Smyth said. "It's goaltender interference and I should be in the box. That's a penalty, right? That's what the rule book says."
"Someone hit me, and it was probably both players," Rinne said, referring to Smyth and a Nashville defender. "Those are probably tough for referees to call, but it's good for us."
A few minutes later, the Predators appeared to make even more significant contact with Quick, but got no whistles at all - and Wilson flipped home the loose puck to tie it.
"He skated into me and took me across the crease," said Quick, who made 28 saves in his first game back from a one-game absence for his daughter's birth. "I don't know how that's a goal when five minutes earlier, we didn't even touch Rinne, and they said that was interference. I don't understand that one bit. I didn't get an explanation at all."
Hornqvist then put Nashville ahead when he beat Quick in front of the net for his 26th goal, and the Predators finished up another near-spotless defensive performance with just one minor penalty.
"That's the leadership inside this locker room," Nashville defenceman Shea Weber said. "Guys realize that if you dwell on one game like what happened in San Jose, you lose focus on what you need to do."
Anze Kopitar scored his career high-tying 32nd goal on his bobblehead day as the Kings opened a key four-game homestand with their fourth loss in six games. With Kopitar centring Williams and Smyth, the Kings had their injury-plagued top line together for a home game for the first time since mid-November, but it didn't result in much offence.
"The way we approached the game today, we were lacking energy and lacking effort," Kopitar said. "It's not the way to start a game, especially against a team we haven't had success against, (and) most importantly, a team that is chasing us for a playoff spot. It's unacceptable."
NOTES: Steven Holcomb, who drove the USA-1 bobsled to a gold-medal victory in Vancouver last month, watched the game and got a standing ovation when shown on the overhead scoreboard. ... Kopitar's power-play goal tied his career high from 2007-08 with 14 games still to play. ... Los Angeles sent G Jonathan Bernier back to the minors after he won a fill-in start Friday at Dallas in impressive fashion, stopping 29 shots and all six shootout attempts. Erik Ersberg, Quick's season-long backup, wasn't thrilled to be passed over for a rare chance to replace Quick, who had played in 19 of the Kings' previous 20 games.