LOS ANGELES – A staple of the Los Angeles Kings last season was their ability to close out games. Their defense was a virtual fortress when leading after two periods.
A spate of injuries on defense put some cracks in that armor, and it bent ended slightly Friday night before the Kings pulled out a much-needed 2-1 win against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
The Kings held Columbus to 13 shots on goal but had to sweat at the end after Nick Foligno scored with 2:25 left. The Blue Jackets pulled goalie Sergei Bobrovsky for an extra attacker in the final 90 seconds and swarmed the Kings' zone but couldn't dent L.A.'s defense – full of holes without Matt Greene, Willie Mitchell and Alec Martinez.
"We're trying to improve on it," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "There's parts of our game that we have to absolutely demand that we try and get better at it because of the inexperience on the back end."
Sutter likes backup goalies as much as too many men penalties, but he gave Jonathan Bernier rare back-to-back starts -- his first since Jan.15-17, 2011 -- in place of Jonathan Quick. Bernier stopped 12 shots to get the win.
The Kings improved to 90-1-10 in their last 101 games when leading after two periods.
"When we get the lead, we're a strong team," Clifford said. "So that's got to be our focus all year.
"I think it's a good step. We've got a young d-corps up here, and a couple of new faces with injuries and I think they're doing a great job. It's starting to come together right now."
Clifford ended the stagnant action with a takeaway from Nikita Nikitin at the Columbus bench before he skated down the left side and wristed a shot to the far side and past Sergei Bobrovsky at 18:40 of the second period.
Jared Boll was given a roughing penalty at the end of the period, and Fedor Tyutin was called for holding 49 seconds into the third to set up the two-man advantage. Anze Kopitar skated the puck all the way up the center of the ice and dropped it to Richards, whose shot hit Nikitin's leg, bounced off Bobrovsky and went across the goal line at 1:34.
Richards recorded his 400th career point. Bernier picked up his second career assist on the play, but he didn't remember the first. Asked the last time he got an assist, Bernier said, "I don't know. Pee Wee, maybe."
Joked Clifford, "I might pick him up in my fantasy league."
Bobrovsky finished with 20 saves.
The Kings took a 1-0 edge going into the third after they gave the Blue Jackets three power plays in the second period, two because of hooking and boarding penalties by Drew Doughty. Rob Scuderi contributed a hustle defensive play when he broke up a partial breakaway by Foligno while shorthanded.
Columbus talked earlier this week about wanting to play well for new general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, but the first 40 minutes were nothing to showcase. The Blue Jackets put eight shots on goal in the first two periods despite those three power plays.
"That's big," Foligno said. "That's a big momentum boost for your team, and we've to find a way, all of us, on the power play, to get the job done … we've got to bear down on our chances and understand that's a huge opportunity for us to get ahead in this game."
It didn't help that center Artem Anisimov sat out after he was struck by the puck on his first shift of the second period. Coach Todd Richards said it was a bruise and nothing was broken. He was more concerned with a lack of time in L.A.'s zone.
"We didn't win a lot of battles tonight," Richards said. "There was more urgency in their game than there was in ours as far as winning those one-on-one battles in the offensive zone. Some of them might have been we were spending more time in our defensive zone and using up our energy."