Nashville Predators right winger Andrei Kostitsyn, of USSR, right, controls the puck as with Los Angeles Kings center Trevor Lewis defends during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 17, 2012, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Hartog)
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - With three weeks to go in the regular season, the surging Los Angeles Kings have their eyes squarely set on a playoff berth. And, they're gaining momentum at just the right time in the tightly packed Western Conference race.
Dustin Penner sparked a three-goal third-period blitz that broke open a tie game and carried the Kings to a 4-2 victory over the Nashville Predators on Saturday night, extending their winning streak to four games in the opener of a four-game homestand.
Penner, Dwight King and Kyle Clifford all found the net during a span of 8 minutes, 15 seconds against Pekka Rinne, who was trying to become the first goalie this season to reach the 40-win mark and the first in Predators history.
The Kings' seventh win in nine games, coupled with San Jose's 3-2 overtime win against Detroit, tied Los Angeles with the Sharks for the eighth and final playoff spot, one point behind seventh-place Colorado and one ahead of 10th-place Phoenix.
"We're keeping pace. That's it. It's too bad we can't gain any ground," coach Darryl Sutter said. "You just have to take care of business as much as you can."
The Kings are only one point behind Pacific Division-leading Dallas, and could take over third place in the conference by overtaking the Stars. Los Angeles will end the regular season with a home-and-home set against San Jose.
"We've been playing really well. It's playoff hockey for us already, so we just have to keep it going," centre Trevor Lewis said. "We have to just keep winning, and that will determine our fate."
Anze Kopitar had the Kings' other goal and Jonathan Bernier made 19 saves in his 12th start of the season, improving to 6-1-0 lifetime against. Nashville.
"When you're going to the playoffs, you have to find a way to bury teams, and that's what we did tonight," Bernier said. "We played very intense all night, and that's why we got the two points."
Martin Erat and Mike Fisher scored for the Predators, and Rinne stopped 23 shots. Nashville is two points behind the Red Wings for fourth place in the conference and home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs.
The score was tied at 1 when Lewis knocked the puck away from Nashville defenceman Ryan Suter along the left boards at the Kings' blue line. That started an odd-man rush with Penner, who redirected Lewis' cross-ice feed past Rinne's stick from the edge of the crease for his sixth goal of the season.
"I think we all almost passed out in the corner there, screaming so loud," Lewis said. "It was a lot of fun. We've been playing together for a little while now. We've been talking a lot about the plays we can make and using our speed, and it was working for us out there tonight."
King added his fourth goal with 6:58 to play, sliding the puck past Rinne's outstretched right leg after Jeff Carter stole the puck from Jordin Tootoo at the red line on a Nashville rush.
"Things are going to happen—a good play, a mistake here and there—but you just have to hold it at that and then see if you can get the next one and get it tied up," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "We didn't do a good job. We turned the puck over in the neutral zone."
Clifford added his fifth goal with 3:41 remaining, beating Rinne with a short backhander after catching up to Jordan Nolan's high clearing pass across two lines.
"It was a good play. I talked to Jordan about making those plays," Sutter said. "He can make really good delayed plays. Sometimes he's trying to play safe while he's there, but if you can make a high percentage play like he did and we use our speed, then good things comes out of the third period."
The Kings opened the scoring for the ninth time in their last 11 games, as Kopitar got the puck from Penner and beat Rinne high to the glove side with a screened 35-foot wrist shot from the right circle for his 23rd goal.
Patric Hornqvist hobbled off the ice after he was stuck by a one-timer off the stick of teammate Sergei Kostitsyn about 7 1/2 minutes into the second period. He returned a few minutes later and drew a cross-checking penalty against Kings captain Dustin Brown that led to the tying goal.
Hornqvist parked himself in front of the crease during the ensuing power play and distracted Bernier just enough to allow Erat's one-timer from the right point to get past him on the stick side at 13:43 of the second period. It was the 18th goal this season for Erat, who has 17 points in his last 17 games against Los Angeles.
Notes: The Predators came in with a league-leading 21.4 power-play percentage. ... Bernier has allowed fewer than three goals in eight of his last nine starts, including a 4-0 win at Minnesota on Feb. 28. ... The Kings are 4-4-2 when Kopitar scores their first goal—and in the four losses, he had their only goals. ... The Kings' next game on Tuesday night against San Jose will be Sutter's 900th regular-season game as an NHL coach. He was behind the Sharks' bench for 434 of them. ... Nashville's David Poile overtook Harry Sinden for second place on the all-time list for games as a general manager with his 2,235th, trailing only Glen Sather. ... Los Angeles has 18 first-period goals in its last 11 games. ... Rinne, who signed a seven-year, $49 million contract extension on Nov. 3, leads the league with 1,794 saves and has faced a league-high 1,942 shots.