SUNDAY, MAY 2, 1993 SPORTS
Copyright 1993/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
Kings Have a Cool Hand in Luc
It was less a game than a dock fight. The hockey version of a Rocky movie — all offense.
The goaltenders might have been Laurel and Hardy. They couldn’t stop a beach ball. This is the way Charlie Chaplin would have played the part. Goals flew in from all over the place. Most of the night, the goalies looked like guys trying to fight off a cloud of bats.
No one ever likened the 1993 Los Angeles Kings to the 1927 Yankees, but after consecutive nine-goal victories, you have to wonder if Murderers’ Row has taken to the ice. Eighteen goals in two games is the wildest kind of long-ball hitting for this sport. Most teams don’t score 18 goals in a month. Some teams couldn’t score 18 goals into an empty net.
To be sure, Calgary’s Jeff Reese proved to be the next best thing to an empty net, a turnstile goalie. A measure of his ineptness can be found in the fact that the Kings in one period — the second — had four shots on goal and three of them went in. He gave up six goals in 13 shots and nine in 23. That is the rankest kind of generosity.
Calgary might as well have had a snowman with a carrot for a nose, hunks of coal for eyes and a stovepipe hat in the crease. He ministered to the Kings’ growing reputation as a pack of wild-swinging, hip-shooting bad guys playing desperado hockey. Home-run hitters. Knockout punchers. Bomb throwers.
The left wing, Luc Robitaille, takes issue with that image.
“No,” he shakes his head. “It’s more like, we get the lead, and then they have to take chances to get even and they get reckless. When they do, we know they’re over-committed, over-extended and we take advantage and strike quickly.”
However it was done, it put the Kings into May still alive in the NHL tournament, a first for the franchise.
An even more curious factor in the Kings-Flames game Thursday that moved the Kings into the division final against Vancouver was that it was done with Robitaille getting no shots on goal.
If you think that isn’t unusual, you haven’t been paying attention. Because, almost unnoticed in the evolution of the team, Luc has become the cleanup hitter of the Kings. Larrupin’ Luc.
Hardly had Robitaille settled in as a King when Wayne Gretzky became one. This is like joining the Yankees about the same time as Babe Ruth, or playing left field with Willie Mays in center. Your chances of being overlooked are good to astronomical.
Gretzky, of course, is Babe Ruth, the most potent force ever to play this game, with the most goals ever scored in a season, 92; most assists, one season and lifetime, 163 and 1,563, respectively, and more records than the next five guys combined.
Still, if Robitaille were on a team not overshadowed by a legend, he would be approaching superstar status himself. This season, he scored more goals, 63, and piled up more points, 125, than any other left wing in history.
If he played for Montreal, he would be on billboards and giving interviews in his native French. In L.A., they find out he’s a hockey player and they ask him if he knows Gretzky personally, or they pronounce his name “Robo-telly” instead of the correct “Robo-tye.”
No one calls him “Rocket” or “Punch” or “the golden Gorilla” or “the Great One” or even “King” or “Boom Boom,” but the goalies know who he is.
He comes out shooting. He leads the Kings annually in shots on goal — 265 this season, 240 last year. His nickname should be “Two-Gun.” Billy the Kid never pulled the trigger so much.
But what he lacks in press attention, he gets on locker-room blackboards. Hockey has a sub-tier method of recognition. Enemy teams might even let the great Gretzky get loose on the point in key situations, but Billy the Kid Robitaille usually finds a posse surrounding him. Guarding Robitaille is a growth industry.
The theory for years has been that, if you bottle up Gretzky, someone is open somewhere. But when Robitaille doesn’t get a single shot to rattle off the nets or the goaltender’s pads, attention to him is being paid somewhere.
Luc is used to being overlooked. He wasn’t fast. He didn’t have this 100-m.p.h. slap shot. He had all his teeth. His face didn’t look like a zipper. So they drafted him along about the time they were signing the Zamboni driver, 171st.
But Robitaille always had an instinct for the end zone — on this case, the net. Skating under a clock, there were dozens ahead of him. Skating through a line of enforcers or going in the corners with a team called the “Bullies,” he was as fast as he had to be. When he got the puck, he tended to disappear. Marcel Dionne, no less, once commented on his balance, “You can’t knock him off the puck.”
If hockey had a three-point shot, the Kings’ final victory over Calgary would have been double. Gretzky’s first score was a slap shot from the blue line and Jari Kurri’s smash to make the game 4-2 was a 50-footer with more air time than a tee shot by John Daly.
The Kings have now found their niche. When you can airmail in nine goals in only 23 shots one night and nine in 35 on another, you don’t need stick-handling or behind-the-net smuggling. You just open fire. Send the other team into bunkers or diving for cover. If you get the other guys toe to toe, you win.
If they’re going to play grip-it-and-rip-it, Robitaille can play that game, too. He has 348 lifetime goals, no current threat to Gretzky’s 765, but when the Kings can fire in nine a night, the chances are that Robitaille is diverting the attention of someone somewhere on the ice.
A guy who was drafted 171st and then went out and became rookie of the year, and who has all his teeth and ears after seven years and 476 penalty minutes, is a force. If the Kings are going to come into town in these playoffs now like the James Gang with a reputation for a fast draw and shooting first, the guy they call “Lucky” will be riding shotgun.
Reprinted with the permission of the Los Angeles Times
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