- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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LOS ANGELES -- Jarret Stoll's world changed on June 23. He was essentially demoted.
Fast-forward 11 months and Stoll has never played better hockey in his career, and the No. 3 center has the Kings one victory away from its first Stanley Cup finals appearance in 19 years.
"When he's slotted right where he is, he's awesome like that," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said.
Certainly on Thursday night, there was no more impactful player on the ice at a rocking Staples Center as the Kings prevailed 2-1 to take a 3-0 series lead over the game-but-overmatched Phoenix Coyotes.
"He had a strong, powerful game tonight," added Sutter, who also lauded top center Anze Kopitar.
Stoll has had better offensive years, of course, since he played a top-six role during parts of his NHL career. And while he did play some top-six minutes as a winger this season, he became a rock for the Kings once he permanently took over the No. 3 center job -- providing excellent play at both ends of the ice while being a key penalty killer and top faceoff man.
"He's an awesome two-way center," teammate Matt Greene said. "I've had the pleasure of playing with him for a long time now. And he's a stud. I think he does a lot of things he doesn't get credit for."
Just another weapon on a Kings squad rolling along at 11-1 in these playoffs -- 11 wins in 12 games!
In Game 1, it was Kopitar's top line that did most of the damage. In Game 2, the second unit's Jeff Carter had a hat trick. And in Game 3, Stoll's line was a beast, providing the game winner when Stoll began the forecheck by stealing the puck from Coyotes blueliner Michael Stone and beginning a sequence that would eventually lead to winger Dwight King snapping it top corner on Mike Smith.
It was a just reward for the Kings' third line, which in terms of notoriety has certainly played in the shadow of the Kopitar and Richards units. But it's also yet another reminder of how the Kings can find different ways to win.
And for Stoll, this was his night. He was all over the puck. Along with linemates King and Trevor Lewis, they forced Coyotes players into turnovers and rushed decisions with a smart and aggressive forecheck.
"It's tough for them to make one or two clean passes when we're over [the] top of them like that," Stoll said.
To win a championship, you need players who sacrifice. Stoll was a 40-goal scorer in junior, had a career-high 68 points with the Oilers in 2005-06, and he's capable of being a No. 2 center in this league, no question.
But he also wants to win. He didn't complain one bit when Richards was brought in. He saw the bigger picture. He knew he still had an important place on this team.
"Everybody's got to play well to win," Stoll said. "It doesn't matter where you are in the lineup. Whether you're playing five to six minutes a night or 18 to 19 minutes a night -- it doesn't really matter. As long as you're playing your role and contributing and doing the things you do well for the team. Right now we've got everybody on that same page."
Fewer minutes and fewer points, a more defensive role, all in a year in which his contract is expiring. He'll be an unrestricted free agent July 1. Not sure every player in the league would sacrifice that much.
"He's an ultimate team guy," Greene said of Stoll. "He'd play anything as long as it got us the win, and as long as he can contribute, he'll do anything to help the team. He's an awesome guy. He's made a lot of self-sacrifice in his game, giving up a lot of minutes, keeping a positive attitude, adjusting in a new role and doing well in it."
All well worth it to get another shot. Stoll tasted a heartbreaking defeat in the 2006 Stanley Cup finals with Edmonton, getting all too close in seven games but falling short.
Now the 29-year-old is one win away from getting back to the big stage.
"It's two months of hard work, but it could be the best two months of your life," Stoll said. "We went right to the end in 2006 and lost, but definitely learned a lot from that experience of how hard it is to get there and just that little extra that you have to push yourself. Maybe you don't think it's there some nights, but you keep pushing and pushing and hopefully it'll work out."
6dScott Burnside and Craig Custance