Drew Doughty is back in a big way.
Down 3-0 to its Californian rival only days ago, L.A. has staged a remarkable turnaround on the strength of its franchise blueliner, winning three straight contests to force a seventh and deciding game at SAP Center on Wednesday night.
Anze Kopitar has been stellar, as always, Justin Williams has proven worthy of his clutch reputation once more and Jonathan Quick has largely recovered from his rough patch, but Doughty has been the engine propelling this Kings team forward.
His knack for stifling the opposition’s stars while providing game-breaking offense of his own is truly something to behold. Moreover, his ability to dictate the tempo of a game is unparalleled.
Unfortunately, after suffering a shoulder injury late in the season, he wasn’t allowed the luxury of easing back into the swing of things before Game 1. It showed.
He wasn’t dialed into game speed—let alone the torrid pace of postseason hockey—and his decision-making wasn't as sharp as usual.
Without its tone-setter in top shape, L.A.’s back end crumbled in San Jose, keeping horrible gaps in the neutral zone and turning pucks over repeatedly. These fundamental errors carved out an easy path to victory for the Sharks, who gladly pounced on odd-man rushes to blow 13 goals by the Kings’ netminders in two games.
In a stunning turn of events, 6.5 goals a game were put up on a club that averaged a mere 2.05 goals against in the regular season.
Since then, the Kings have conceded eight times in four games and outscored the Sharks by eight goals.
In that span, Doughty has shaken off the rust and reclaimed his spot as one of the preeminent big-game players in the world.
He managed one assist and a minus-one rating over the first two contests. In the next four, he registered five helpers and a whopping plus-four rating, fueling his team’s refusal to go down without a fight.
Who has the been the most important player in the Kings' comeback?
Beyond the offensive production and San Jose’s recent lack thereof, Doughty’s elite puck-possession game has risen to the surface to tidy up the Kings’ early three-zone sloppiness.
Against the fifth-ranked squad in even-strength Corsi percentage during the regular season, the 24-year-old has controlled 57.1 percent of shot attempts when he’s been on the ice, not only keeping his end clean but creating a mess in San Jose's net-front area with well-placed point shots and electrifying dashes.
His skill and poise with the puck have kept possession away from San Jose and swiftly transitioned defense into offense, frustrating a very good squad that seemingly held a stranglehold in the series.
Doughty has routinely foiled the Sharks’ forecheck with a crafty dish to his pairmate, a decisive breakout pass out of the defensive zone or an elusive foray up the ice. He isn’t the fastest player around, but he knows how to weave through traffic and create separation, generating all kinds of havoc in San Jose's zone.
The bulk of the Kings' goals have been of the greasy variety. I suggested that they had to be last week, and Doughty has delivered on that aim by consistently funneling pucks toward San Jose's goaltenders for rebounds, tap-ins or deflections.
If we take a look at the video below, the Kings' tireless forecheck turns the puck over in Game 4. Once clear possession is established, Mike Richards sends a nifty saucer pass to Doughty, who supports the attack by finding a soft spot in coverage. He takes his time before firing low and hard to grant Dwight King a glorious second-chance opportunity.
In Game 6, he receives a pass at his blue line and manufactures a goal by flying into attack mode, slamming on the brakes and rocketing a pass to Williams through the puck-watching Sharks.
Capable of thriving at any gear, Doughty can slow the tempo to his advantage or ramp it up in search of quick-strike offense. Either way, he's in full control, which is pivotal given how out of control the Kings looked early in the series.
He's been at the heart of every positive step the Kings have taken to gain a foothold against San Jose.
Gone are the turnovers, gifted rushes and loose gaps in the neutral zone. The Sharks have been forced to earn their ice in the last four contests, and they haven’t enjoyed the resistance they’ve met in the process.
This much was evidenced by the shenanigans that took place during L.A.’s Game 4 and Game 6 wins at Staples Center, when key Sharks such as Brent Burns and Logan Couture were goaded into dropping the gloves.
Speaking of San Jose’s top forwards, the Kings have limited Burns, Couture, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau to eight combined points and a minus-eight rating in the last four games.
Doughty has obviously played a significant part in that picture, as he faces the top competition among L.A.’s defensemen. He's featured an active stick and leaned on the Sharks' main offensive cogs, never affording them any room to breathe.
For the series, the Kings have allowed a league-worst 16 even-strength goals. Doughty has been on the ice for just three of those while logging nearly six more minutes per game than the next closest King.
He's simply owned the puck of late, withholding it from San Jose's forwards while piling pressure on whichever Sharks goaltender is in the crease.
A handful of NHL rearguards boast Doughty’s offensive arsenal, and there are certainly blueliners who defend as well, too. With that said, few—if any—are as effective in every zone.
When you add in his talent for managing the temperature of games, L.A.’s workhorse is rivaled only by Chicago Blackhawks stud Duncan Keith.
Doughty seldom reaches this level in the regular season, but he’s been brilliant in the playoffs yet again, leading the Kings' charge against the daunting San Jose Sharks.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.