EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – The emergence of the top two lines for the Los Angeles Kings has been a perfect storm, set in motion by a key arrival, a return to greatness and a subtle adjustment by the team captain.
Dead last in the NHL in scoring through the first three-quarters of the regular season, the offense seemed to come alive the day Jeff Carter stepped on to the ice in late February, two days after he was acquired by the Kings in a bold trade-deadline move.
The Kings went from averaging 2.22 goals through the first 61 games to 2.76 over the last 21, enough to nudge L.A. into the postseason as the eighth-seeded team in the Western Conference.
That little tailwind turned into a modest hurricane in the playoffs, as Dustin Penner began playing left wing the way the Kings envisioned, and Dustin Brown grew more comfortable on the left side after spending most of his career on the right.
Now the Kings have spun their way into the Stanley Cup finals for just the second time in the franchise’s 45-year history. They’ll open the best-of-seven series Wednesday night against the New Jersey Devils in Newark, N.J.
“Everything kind of fell together,” Carter said after practice Saturday. “The scoring slump that you [reporters] talked about all the time kind of disappeared.”
So far in the playoffs, the Devils haven’t seen anything like the top-six forwards they’ll encounter from L.A.
In the first three rounds of the playoffs, 18 games in all, the top two lines that went against New Jersey combined for 12 even-strength goals and 16 assists.
In 14 games this postseason, Carter, Penner, Brown, Anze Kopitar, Justin Williams and Mike Richards have accounted for 18 even-strength goals and 33 assists.
“Every night it’s a different guy that seems to be stepping up,” Carter said. “When you’re this deep into the playoffs, that’s what you need.”
Fellow teammates say it’s no coincidence that the arrival of Carter in a shuffle that sent defenseman Jack Johnson to the last place Columbus Blue Jackets coincided with L.A.’s turnaround.
“He’s not just a player, he’s good in the room,” Williams said. “He just seems to complement our team.”
In the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Coyotes, Carter displayed his tendency to score goals in bunches with a hat trick in Game 2. In the Game 5 victory that clinched the series and sent the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals, Carter had the primary assist on Penner’s overtime winner.
“Certainly, we’ve raised our level and so has [Carter],” Williams said.
Nobody has raised their level of play in the postseason quite like Penner.
After scoring 17 points in 65 regular-season games, the four-time 20-goal scorer has 10 points in the playoffs, including the series-clinching overtime winner in Game 5 of the conference finals.
“It’s a fresh start for everybody,” Williams said of the playoffs. “[Penner] needed that and he certainly understood we’re counting on him, and he has done an awesome job for us.”
Penner was the last piece of the puzzle among the top six forwards. He didn’t become a regular member of the group until late in Game 5 of the opening-round series against the Vancouver Canucks. Penner came off the third line, trading places with rookie Dwight King, who seemed to have trouble keeping up with the speed of Carter and Richards.
Penner has scored eight of his 10 playoff points since the switch and King has produced all five of his goals.
“For whatever reason, me moving up, Kinger moving down and then Carts coming in, every line locked in, the whole team locked in,” Penner said. “When you’re playing as well as we are, I think the parts become interchangeable in a sense.”
Brown would probably agree. Because of long-term injuries to left wings Simon Gagne and Scott Parse, as well as the ineffectiveness for long stretches by Penner, Brown was asked to move over to left wing, a change he had made for brief stretches over the last two seasons. Being a right-handed shot, the change can be about as awkward as a left-hander playing third base.
But the team captain has flourished while playing alongside Kopitar and Williams. It started with a hat trick in Carter’s first game with the Kings and he built on that momentum right into the playoffs. Brown has seven goals and nine assists in the postseason, with five points coming shorthanded, all while maintaining his well-known physical style of play.
Williams, Kopitar and Richards have also fed the offensive machine, giving the Kings six forwards with at least nine points in the postseason.
“That’s what good teams do, that’s what championship teams do,” Williams said of the scoring balance. “We need to keep doing it.”