Carter's 'old goat' role carrying Kings
Los Angeles center producing big on line with 22-year-olds Toffoli, Pearson
LOS ANGELES -- Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson were 10 years old when the first version of the "two kids and an old goat" line made its appearance for the Detroit Red Wings during their run to the 2002 Stanley Cup championship.
At the time, young Pavel Datsyuk and Boyd Devereaux were the perfect foils for Hall of Fame-bound Brett Hull, who came up with the name himself (the following year, Henrik Zetterberg took Devereaux's place on the unit). The notion was that the kids helped re-energize Hull, while one of the greatest scorers of all time imparted some wisdom on a pair of wide-eyed youngsters.
No one is suggesting that Jeff Carter is an old goat at 29 years old, and he isn't necessarily tracking toward the Hall of Fame. But given the performance that Carter and his youthful wards (or linemates, if you must) Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson turned in on Saturday night, perhaps it's time to start talking playoff MVP.
Carter, the not-so-old goat, had a goal and two assists to follow up his four-point performance in the third period of Game 2 as the Kings rolled over the Chicago Blackhawks 4-3 Saturday to take a 2-1 series lead.
Toffoli added a goal and Pearson an assist, as the two 22-year-olds have now recorded points in four straight games.
"I'm having fun. This is incredible," Toffoli said.
"Obviously, as a young guy, you dream of being in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and the past three games have been probably my best three games of the playoffs, so you just have to keep playing hard, and you want to win, so I'm trying to help the team."
It's not just the production, although obviously that's been impressive, as the trio has combined for 16 goals and 23 assists in the playoffs, but it's the manner in which the production has come about that has given the Kings a completely different feel than the past couple of postseasons.
There is a kind of abandon the three play with, a never-quit mentality that has teammates marveling.
On the Kings' second goal, Pearson outfought Brent Seabrook behind the Chicago goal for possession of the puck and then quickly found Carter parked on the edge of the Chicago crease to tie the game 2-2. A little over six minutes later, Toffoli would take advantage of a slow-reacting Chicago defense tandem of Niklas Hjalmarsson and Johnny Oduya to burst into the clear and score.
"When you have multiple threats -- and they've been our hottest line probably dating back to the end of Anaheim series -- it's great to see," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "Obviously, that's what we need. Carts, it's not a shock to see Carts score goals like he does, but those other two guys have come up and really stepped up their game and are playing at an elite level.
"I think it's exciting as a player who's been here for a long time to see guys come up and have really good success on the offensive side of the puck. Everyone talks about how we're not an offensive team, and that's probably our M.O. because we are very good on the defensive side of the puck. But to see some of the plays that they're making, it's exciting to be a teammate. I'm sure it's exciting to be a fan.
"Like I said, it's just exciting to see those guys do well because they put in the work, put in the time in Manchester, now it's paying off for them."
So much was written at the outset of this series about these teams' so-called top lines: the Kings' Anze Kopitar facing off against Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews. As so often happens when power goes against power, those two great centers have taken turns neutralizing each other. Toews was a force early in Game 3 with two first-period goals, but the Kings' scored three unanswered goals before the Hawks scored with 4.2 seconds left in regulation.
While the Kopitar line has been dormant for the most part over the past four periods (and a bit going back to late in the second period of Game 2), the Kings outscored the Blackhawks 10-3, and much of that damage has been done by the Carter trio, a group some are calling "that 70s line" (because they all wear numbers in the 70s and there was a TV show -- oh, never mind, you get it).
We prefer to draw a line, even if it's a dotted line back to the "two kids and an old goat" imagery, if only because the group's dynamic has the potential to be the defining element in this series.
Luc Robitaille, the Kings' president of business operations, was in Detroit when the "old goat" line was formed. He laughed when asked about a new version in Los Angeles and pointed out that Carter isn't nearly in "old goat" mode yet. But he said the group's influence in the dressing room cannot be overstated.
"Oh, it's so much fun, because you just see their work ethic," Robitaille told ESPN.com Saturday night. "It's amazing. They get out there and every loose puck they just jump. They've been such a spark for us ever since the San Jose series."
One of the knocks on both Pearson and Toffoli coming out of junior was that their skating might hold them back.
Not much of an issue for either youngster, as it turns out.
"I'm surprised at Tanner because last year; I give him a lot of credit, he really worked on his skating, and he looks so fast out there. And I didn't know he had it. He's been flying out there," Robitaille said.
"We've always known they're really smart players. You look at their pedigree. Every year, these kids have produced. But to see their work ethic and them to adjust to our system, that's why I have a lot of respect for these guys.
"You never feel we're in danger when they're on there."
Just as Hull never quite got the credit for his two-way hockey, especially on the Dallas and Detroit teams that won Cups, Carter has proven to be the ultimate stabilizing force for the Pearson-Toffoli duo.
"He's so smart. Jeff, for us, he's so good in our own end," Robitaille said. "He doesn't get credit for how good he is in his own end, and you saw in the Olympics, by the end of the Olympics they were using him in every facet because they knew, this guy's great."
Carter, for his part, has gone along good naturedly with having to answer for his two young linemates.
"It's been great," Carter said Saturday. "Obviously, they have a lot of chemistry from playing together in Manchester. They're working and they're having fun. They use their speed and their skill to create opportunities. Kind of dragging me along with them, so it's been good."
Certainly, Toffoli and Pearson give no indication they have anything but admiration, if not a little reverence, for their elder statesman center.
In fact, both seemed a bit shocked when asked if they sometimes rib Carter about being older.
"No, not at all, I think we kind of look at him for advice, if anything. Not trying to rag on him that he's older than us," Pearson said.
The Blackhawks, too, were being forced to answer lots of postgame questions about the success of the Carter line.
"They've got great speed, they've got great skill and they're strong on the puck. They made plays today and they capitalized and they scored," said Blackhawks center Michal Handzus, who saw a lot of the group the past couple of games.
He said they need to be stronger on the puck and compete every second.
"And those little details right now, they're doing a better job than us," he said.
In the end, the more imposing problem for the Hawks isn't answering questions about the Carter group, but coming up with an answer for them on the ice.
And they better do it quickly.
2014 STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS
Sixteen teams began the quest for Lord Stanley's Cup, only two remain: