Though “That 70s Line” has garnered much of the recognition for the Los Angeles Kings’ 3-1 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final, the team has reached this stage on the strength of a quality that extends far beyond one forward unit.
It’s a familiar one, too, as it constituted the driving force behind L.A.’s Stanley Cup run in 2012—only now, it’s even better.
With unrivaled depth at center, the Kings control the middle of the ice like no other squad in the NHL, continually driving play toward the opposition’s net and forcing it to work that much harder to earn its scoring opportunities.
Granted, some games have been plagued by poor puck management, but when the team has thrived, it has done so with its centers impelling it forward in all three zones.
The opposition's inability to compete with L.A.'s four-headed monster down the middle has been exposed in every series to this point.
Here’s how each of the Kings’ pivots have tipped the scales in their team’s favor during the playoffs.
Finally receiving the plaudits he deserves this season with a Selke Trophy nomination, Anze Kopitar has been a tremendous two-way force for the past half-decade.
Sure, he currently leads the league in postseason points with 22, but it’s his puck possession and even-strength defense that are truly elite.
His 53.1 five-on-five Corsi percentage is stellar, and he utilizes his size (6’3”, 225 lbs) and skill to dictate the flow of the game when he’s on the ice. Few can knock him off the puck in the corners, and he’s unparalleled in his ability to receive a pass in the defensive zone and then secure entry into the offensive zone by carrying the puck there himself.
Blessed with a solid frame and silky-smooth hands, Kopitar is simply a nightmare to defend.
His physique also helps out considerably on defense, where he can smother opponents against the wall or use his reach to intercept passes. He did precisely that against Logan Couture (three points, even rating in seven games) and Ryan Getzlaf (seven points, minus-five in seven games) in the first and second rounds, respectively.
The Slovenian’s blend of talent and two-way acumen allows him to impose his will on virtually every shift.
He did so once more on Monday night, stripping Duncan Keith of the puck in the offensive zone, immediately spotting an open Marian Gaborik in the slot and feeding him for a 2-0 goal:
With sharpshooter Gaborik now by his side, Kopitar has been able to translate his knack for possession into a constant flow of production.
In Game 6 against the San Jose Sharks, he demonstrated how good defense can lead to offense, blocking a shot, neatly flipping a pass to Justin Williams in the neutral zone and driving to the net to clean up the garbage:
That’s about as fundamentally sound as it gets.
Even when he’s relatively quiet on the scoreboard, he’s chipping in with his two-way responsibility, faceoff efficiency (55.4 percent) and poise. He’s a calm, hulking pivot who can either create momentum or reclaim it from the opposition.
Kopitar has perhaps met his match in the brilliant Jonathan Toews, but on most nights in the postseason, he’s powered his team ahead with superb puck possession and sterling defense.
The least defense-oriented center on the club is by far its most dynamic.
Jeff Carter’s sheer pace has caused opponents a world of trouble in the playoffs. The proof is in the stat line: 20 points in 18 games.
In Round 3, he’s amassed nine points in only four games.
His line is not an outright liability in its end, but head coach Darryl Sutter has deployed Carter, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli in clever fashion, sheltering them in tight situations and unleashing them when the other team must risk opening the floodgates to tie the game.
When opponents have no other choice but to engage in firewagon hockey, this second line starts to lick its chops, ready and willing to fly up and down the ice and pounce on any scoring chances that may present themselves.
Carter’s young linemates have also granted him more room than he’s enjoyed in years. Defensemen must respect both Pearson’s high-octane style and Toffoli’s own shot, leaving Carter to sneak by puck-watchers for high-quality bids.
He has always been a sniper who can finish from nearly anywhere on the ice. Iced in situations where he can make full use of his speed, though, he’s become even more clinical.
After shooting 10.5 percent in the regular season, Carter has scored on a playoff career-best 18.2 percent of his shots over the past 18 games.
He's been put in a position to see better looks and has converted them.
In Game 7 against the Anaheim Ducks, Carter burst through the seam, leaving rookie defenseman Hampus Lindholm in the dust before deking out John Gibson for a big-time insurance marker:
In Game 2 against the Chicago Blackhawks, he was at the heart of L.A.’s six-goal onslaught, burying Chicago for good when he raced out of the defensive zone and screamed a wrister by Corey Crawford on a two-on-one.
The Kings have a ton of experience and three-zone aplomb. What they've lacked in previous years is a game-breaker at center—a player who can turn the tide of a game with pure speed or a single shot.
Unfortunately for the rest of the league, L.A. found its solution when it split up Carter and Mike Richards.
With the opposition’s top centers usually assuming Kopitar duty, the remaining pivots have had no answer for Carter’s blazing-fast instant offense.
There isn’t necessarily more to Jarret Stoll than meets the eye, and that’s just fine, because he offers plenty: He’s a great penalty-killer, solid on defense, terrific at the dot (57.8 percent) and he hits everything that moves (68 hits).
That’s a pretty darn useful player.
Granted, he still commits too many penalties (eight in the playoffs) and his production (two points in 18 games) is nothing to write home about, but his contributions in the grunt-work department are invaluable.
One of the categories in which he excels is penalty-killing. To this point in the postseason, he’s only been on the ice for two power-play goals against. His motor never stops running, and he’s a fearless shot-blocker, diving into lanes to prevent the puck from reaching his netminder.
His proficiency on draws cannot be overstated either, as winning faceoffs plays into L.A.’s puck-possession system. In a nutshell, the team starts with the puck more often than not when he’s around.
The benefits are far-reaching, with Stoll taking—and frequently winning—faceoffs in the defensive zone, on the penalty kill and in crucial late-game situations where the draw is of the utmost importance. His skill at the dot continually allows the team to deflate the opposition's pressure.
It’s a terrific asset in the offensive end as well. In Game 4 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals, with the game tied 2-2, Stoll scrambled on a draw, and the puck found its way into San Jose’s net seconds later:
Obviously, most faceoffs don’t result in a goal, but Stoll winning the lion’s share of them repeatedly puts his teammates in the driver's seat.
Beyond all that, he sets a tone with his physicality and compete level. He may not always be the smartest player on the ice, but there are few who work harder.
While the basic stats aren’t pretty (six points, minus-five in 18 games), Richards has actually been very good in the postseason, battling the opposition for every inch of ice and leading by example.
The number of plays he's broken up is only matched by the number he’s kept alive for his own team, toiling away as the smallest man in the war—yet somehow the one who consistently ends up with the puck.
He’s saved his best showings for the biggest games, too, completely taking over both Game 7s that the Kings have taken part in this year.
Against the Ducks, he would not be denied, dropping a pass to Dwight King, lifting Cam Fowler’s stick to prevent him from mirroring the puck and bulldozing a path to the slot for a rebound goal that essentially ended Anaheim’s season:
On the whole, he hasn’t put up gaudy offensive statistics, so he hasn’t been talked about much—other than for said underwhelming production.
However, he’s been terrific at the little things that add up to success: forechecking well, winning man-on-man tilts for the puck in every zone and facilitating his team’s possession.
His under-the-radar effectiveness was again on display in Game 4 on Monday, as he took a dish from Williams in a tough spot, splitting Brent Seabrook and Johnny Oduya before slinging a pass through Marian Hossa to the point man. Jake Muzzin fired toward the net, and the game-winner was scored by Dustin Brown moments later:
Richards wasn’t awarded an assist, but that decisive play would have been dead in the water without his composure and vision.
Elsewhere, as always, he’s been a stalwart on the penalty kill, conceding only two power-play goals against through 18 games and pressuring the opposition into poor decisions with his stick placement and hockey sense.
Despite the negative light shining on his numbers, he’s also been fairly noticeable on the attack, creating quite a few opportunities for himself and those around him.
Alas, the offensive quality of his linemates (typically Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis) leaves much to be desired.
This much is reflected in the fact that Richards has registered the second-most five-on-five setup passes (directly resulting in shots) in the entire postseason but presently has the worst five-on-five PDO (sum of on-ice shooting and save percentage) on the team.
He has not enjoyed any puck luck.
Nevertheless, he’s been a total team player, generating turnovers and chances for the Kings on a nightly basis. He’s still all guts, savvy and desire.
Some Kings fans may not be thrilled that these four centers account for over $21 million of the franchise’s salary-cap space, but it’s hard to argue with the results.
In the three seasons during which these four pivots have been on the team, L.A. has reached three conference finals and is now one win away from clinching a second Stanley Cup Final berth.
Despite each fitting into the team’s identity, these centers also bring different skill sets to the table.
Kopitar is the three-zone stud who can balance finesse and fundamentals, Carter is the lighting-in-a-bottle offensive spark, Stoll is the hard-nosed glue guy and Richards is the jack of all trades who would skate through a brick wall for his team.
From bruising to free-flowing hockey, they can handle anything you throw at them.
This year, with Carter and Richards separated, the team's balance down the middle is more palpable than ever.
After Kopitar (19:47), the centers' average ice times (Carter 16:47, Stoll 16:14, Richards 15:18) are similar and depend on circumstance as well as whoever’s hot at any given moment. Compare this to last year's center corps, which featured fourth-liner Colin Fraser only logging 8:27 per game.
There is no longer a weakness to be exploited. There's no clear hierarchy beyond the first line. The minutes and responsibilities are evenly distributed in such a way that the Kings are running like a well-oiled machine.
Since L.A.’s centers can all more or less play a 200-foot game, Sutter rolls his four units expecting them to take care of business at both ends of the rink.
For every second of every game, in every situation, the Kings enjoy a strong presence down the middle.
As we’re finding out, there may not be another team in the NHL that boasts this luxury.