There were several reasons why the Kings were able to leave Vancouver with a split in their first two games in their playoff series against the Canucks.
There’s the excellent play of goaltender Jonathan Quick, and also the ability of the Kings to keep the dangerous Sedin twins off the scoreboard in Game 2.
And you can make a strong argument that another reason was coach Terry Murray’s decision to replace Justin Williams on the Kings first line with Wayne Simmonds. The 21-year-old right wing, playing alongside Anze Kopitar and Ryan Smyth, had a sensational game, not only providing a consistent physical presence with his tenacious forechecking—along with four hits—but also chipping in a goal in the Kings 3-2 overtime victory.
“I think I was put on that line to stir things up a little bit after game one,” said Simmonds. “In my mind I just wanted to go out there and create room for Smytty and Kopi to work, so I think I did a good job.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. Simmonds is on that first unit to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
Murray said that the performance of that first unit set the tone for the entire evening:
“They had a great first shift, got the puck in deep, got the cycle going and got some plays to the net.”
And as for Simmonds in particular?
“I thought Simmonds did a good job on that line,” said Murray. “He showed that grit that he’s played with for most of the year and whenever he’s had an opportunity to play with Kopi, he’s really responded.”
You can’t miss Simmonds when he’s out there, flying into the zone, always on the puck, his legs churning as he piles into opposing players.
“That’s my game,” he said, smiling. “I try and get in there first, rough and tumble and I try to create loose pucks and I feel if I’m not doing that in my game I’m not playing the right way so that’s pretty much what I focused on.”
“Obviously he’s got the crazy legs,” said Smyth, grinning, “and he was very effective and I thought the key was he got in on the forecheck, the cycle got going, we capitalized with the goal.”
The goal was a thing of beauty, the second one the Kings scored in a 35-second stretch in the second period that erased a 2-0 Canucks lead. Breaking in on a 3 on 1, Smyth crashed the net, Kopitar sent a pass over to the streaking Simmonds and he buried it for his first career playoff goal.
“Smytty pushed the defender right into Luongo,” said Simmonds, “and Kopi hesitated a bit and got [Canucks goalie Roberto] Luongo down and by the time I got the puck I had an empty net and all I had to do was tap it in. It was a great play by both those guys.”
The trio is hoping to continue their effective play tonight in Game 3 at Staples, which both Smyth and Kopitar said starts with their linemate’s emphasis on physical play.
“He just gave us energy,” said Smyth, “and it was great to see. It’s momentum and energy that you sometimes need during a game, somewhere, somehow, and I thought he delivered it.”
“I thought his game was really good,” Kopitar agreed, “especially on the forecheck. He was really physical and he was winning the puck battles, which is so important in the playoffs with not a whole lot of space out there. So he was pulling out pucks and it makes it easier for me and Smytty to get in there and get the cycle game going.”
Simmonds seems ready for the challenge, saying that he and a lot of the other younger players on the Kings did a lot of growing up after Game 1, the playoff debut for so many of them.
“First playoff game in the NHL, that’s a huge thing,” Simmonds said, “and I’m going to admit that I was a little bit nervous. I think I got all the jitters out and I was ready to go for Game 2 and playing with those two guys was unbelievable.”
Simmonds says that the Kings game plan for their series against the Canucks is right on schedule.
“That was the goal,” he said, “to go into Vancouver and get the split. We have home ice advantage now. Our fans haven’t seen a playoff game in eight years and I think our momentum is going to ride with it and they’re going to be a huge part of it, that’s for sure.”
The key, he added, is not to allow the excitement in the building tonight affect how he and his teammates perform on the ice.
“I think we gotta play it as a road game,” said Simmonds, “keep it simple, get pucks in deep and if we build on what we did in Game 2, we’ll be fine for these two games.”
And of course, a big part of the Kings plan—and for Simmonds too—is to create as much traffic and trouble as possible around Luongo and his net.
“He’s a world class goaltender,” said Simmonds. “You gotta get in his face and head and we gotta let it be known that we’re going to be in front for every shot. We can’t let him see shots or obviously he’s going to make the save. By getting in front of him, we’ll get those second and third opportunities.”
And Simmonds will be right there—to knock a puck into the net, or knock someone over on his way to the net.