With a stunning 6-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Kings claimed home-ice advantage in the third round of the playoffs and proved they can do a whole lot more than merely hang with the defending champions.
Even without much of a contribution from its first line, L.A. found a way to prevail in Game 2, scoring six unanswered goals in a turnaround that featured healthy doses of determination and team depth.
Prior to Wednesday's tilt, Chicago had boasted the Kings’ number of late. Moreover, the Hawks had yet to lose at home in the postseason. Simply put, this was a huge victory for the Kings.
So, how did they rally back from a two-goal deficit Wednesday to even up the series?
As shown in the conference quarterfinals and semifinals, these Kings just won’t go away quietly. They’ve taken part in a pair of seven-game series to this point in the postseason, losing three games in a row in each matchup and somehow eliminating their opponents anyway.
There’s no quit in this team, and there was ample evidence of that in Game 2.
Down 2-0 due to a couple of breakaway markers, L.A. simply moved on from its miscues and trusted that its system would produce the desired outcome.
Justin Williams joined Mike Richards’ unit with Dwight King after the club’s dismal start, and the two veterans offered their team a lifeline by hounding the puck and tilting the ice toward Chicago’s zone.
With a little under two minutes remaining in the second period, their hard work paid off, as Richards pounced on a loose puck and filtered a pass through to Williams in the slot. The puck banked off the latter’s skate and sneaked by Corey Crawford for a massive goal to pull the team back to within one score.
On Sunday, it was the Hawks who benefited from some good fortune, as Duncan Keith’s game-winner deflected off Trevor Lewis’ stick before beating Jonathan Quick.
The Kings didn’t bemoan their bad luck and thoroughly controlled the rest of Game 1. Following a rough beginning in Game 2, they again kept their nose to the grindstone and this time earned breaks of their own.
When other teams might resign themselves to defeat, this club sticks to its guns and fires back.
L.A. also possesses a knack for showing up in crunch time, as it has the best third-period goal total (22) and differential (plus-11) in the playoffs. Games are never truly out of reach until the final buzzer.
Quick is another figure who must be mentioned when it comes to persistence. He was hung out to dry by his teammates early in Wednesday’s contest but shut the door afterward, keeping the deficit to a manageable two goals.
The defining moment of the game may well have unfolded on a two-on-one opportunity for Chicago.
Following a foolish pinch by Marian Gaborik at the offensive blue line, Kris Versteeg and Brent Seabrook were granted a terrific chance to bury L.A. for good. Versteeg sent a nice pass across to Seabrook, who fired toward a seemingly gaping net.
Ever acrobatic, Quick flew across the crease to deny Seabrook’s bid to give the Hawks a commanding 3-0 lead.
The save immediately felt momentous—the kind of stop we would look back on if the Kings were to emerge with a win.
As it turns out, L.A. did.
The Kings rode an indomitable wave of momentum in the final 30 minutes that originated when Quick stemmed Chicago’s tide.
From its crease on out, the team refused to buckle in Game 2.
Jeff Carter, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli looked great Wednesday. One might wonder, then, why Pearson and Toffoli only logged about nine and 12 minutes of ice time, respectively.
The truth is that trio performed well precisely because of its deployment.
Seeing as it’s quite weak defensively, head coach Darryl Sutter iced the group when it was most advantageous, picking his spots early and then letting it run rampant once a lead was established.
The Hawks were forced to open up their neutral-zone posture in an attempt to tie the game, and with the looser play in all areas, the second line thrived.
The result? A four-point outing from Carter, two assists from Pearson and the game-sealing dagger from Toffoli.
As noted by Jewels from the Crown, Carter’s line spent the bulk of its shifts matched up against Ben Smith, Marcus Kruger and Brandon Bollig:
Game 3 matchups. Have to think Sutter keeps going with something similar in LA. Chicago struggling w these matchups. pic.twitter.com/idJ3m7Y7Yl— Robert P. (@RobertJFTC) May 22, 2014
That group is decent in its end—especially Kruger—but hardly a threat to hurt the Kings when it’s on the ice.
Overall, Carter saw more even-strength time against Kruger than the Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane lines combined. Very safe minutes produced a very positive upshot.
Sure, there were a couple of dicey shifts on the defensive end—including one where Toffoli batted away a sure goal against—but the damage was minimized due to how the unit was handled.
A second savvy move by Sutter was pairing Richards with Williams and King following the 2-0 deficit.
The line utterly dominated puck possession for the remainder of the game, with Richards posting a ridiculous 70.6 even-strength Corsi percentage while King (68.2) and Williams (62.5) registered great numbers as well.
When the Kings appeared down and out in the first period, it was this trio that led the charge and fought to regain a footing in the game—and series—manufacturing a pivotal goal that planted a seed of doubt in Chicago’s mind and woke up the troops on L.A.’s bench.
In terms of three-zone play, Richards has been the best King since Game 6 of the Anaheim series. Sutter recognized this and complemented him with more skill and puck-possession ability than Trevor Lewis can provide.
The change yielded a tremendous showing from the entire line, displaying airtight defense, grit in the trenches, craftiness in spades and an irrepressible desire to win.
Richards and Williams seem to have formed a strong rapport in portions of the past two games, as the former’s guts and playmaking create havoc while the latter dogs the puck so ferociously that the line can generate wave upon wave of shot attempts.
Should Richards and Williams play together full-time?
Along with the second unit, these two playoff warriors ate Chicago’s bottom six alive on Wednesday.
Carter, Toffoli and Pearson are lacking defensively but incredibly dangerous in open ice, so Sutter limited their exposure to Chicago’s big guns and played them consistently when the contest degenerated into pond hockey.
Richards’ recent play warranted better offensive linemates, so Williams joined the fray to create a clutch duo that dominated possession and potted a crucial goal.
Full credit goes to the bench boss for putting his players in a position to succeed.
While the power play delivered a pair of big goals, the most significant storyline from Game 2 was Sutter's coaching. He managed his depth in spotless fashion, waiting for the right moments to release his potent second line and pairing Williams with Richards to overwhelm Chicago's bottom six.
These choices resulted in timely production, first engineering the reversal of fortune and then putting the Hawks away in the third period with an offensive barrage from Carter and Toffoli.
Here's hoping this performance was enough to convince Sutter that Richards and Carter should not play together again in the playoffs—and Jordan Nolan should never play at all.
With Anze Kopitar's and Toews' lines grinding themselves to a deadlock, it was the Kings who found offense from sources beyond their top unit.
Now, in a surprising turn of events, Chicago is left wondering who will produce its secondary scoring.
That bodes well for L.A., which hosts the next two contests at Staples Center and can thus further exploit its favored matchups.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Extra Skater.