Just because the Chicago Blackhawks will be forced to play Thursday night’s fourth game of their Western Conference championship series without defenceman Duncan Keith doesn’t mean the Los Angeles Kings can take anything for granted.
Sure, the Kings are a perfect 8-0 on home-ice in these playoffs, and have won 15 in a row dating back to the regular season. Sure, their last home defeat was 75 days ago, a 1-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks back on Mar. 23. (The NHL record for consecutive home playoff wins in one year is 11 by the 1988 Edmonton Oilers).
Watch: Kings vs. Blackhawks preview
Keith was suspended for the game because he clipped the Kings’ Jeff Carter in the mouth with a one-handed slash across the face in Tuesday night’s third game, won 3-1 by L.A. Chicago leads the best-of-seven series 2-1 and given the Kings’ road woes these playoffs (just 1-7 overall) can all but ice it with a win. A Chicago victory would force the Kings to win twice at the United Centre, a daunting task for a team with its weird Jekyll-and-Hyde, home vs. road personality.
Keith, according to Kings’ centre Jarret Stoll, “is a big piece to their team, but we've got to take advantage of that and play the right way. They're going to have somebody step in and do the job for them. That's what depth is all about. That's what playoffs are all about. We can't worry about that. We've got to worry about our own game. (NHL disciplinary chief Brendan) Shanahan and the NHL, that's their call, and so be it. They'll live with it. We'll live with it and we'll play the game."
Stoll, of course, has become a big part of the Kings’ team since return at the start of the series from a concussion that kept out of the final six games of their second-round series against the San Jose Sharks. After a shaky, rusty opening game in the series, Stoll has ramped it up – so much so that coach Darryl Sutter promoted him to the No. 1 line for Tuesday’s win, playing with Justin Williams and Dustin Brown in place of the slumping Anze Kopitar.
Stoll and Jeff Carter, who shifted over to centre from the wing to replace the injured Mike Richards, both turned into strong performances, one of the key reasons the Kings were able to stay alive in the series.
"That's the best I felt since I came back for sure,” said Stoll. “I definitely wasn't happy with my Game 2 and a lot happier with my Game 3, but we know we have to be even better than we were in Game 3 to get a win here in Game 4."
Stoll hasn’t played a top-six role in some time, but sounds as if he could get used to it.
"Those guys (Brown and Williams) like to get in on the fore-check and cause havoc,” he said. “They work hard, work smart. They're big-game players, too. I just have to do a job in the defensive zone, get them the puck wide and spend some time in the offensive zone."
Carter didn’t speak Thursday, but the day before he reported that he took 20 stitches, and chipped a tooth but didn’t lose any additional bridge work because of a previous injury a couple of days earlier. In his Philadelphia Flyers’ days, Carter always seemed most comfortable at centre and he’s showing that again since Sutter switched him to the middle because of Richards’ absence.
“Obviously going back to centre, it's something that I'm familiar with,” he said. “I’m very comfortable playing in the middle. I think it gives me a little more kind of free rein, if you will.”
The Kings have outscored their opponents, 21-9, at home during the playoffs on the strength of a 1.13 goals-against average, .957 save percentage and three shutouts by goaltender Jonathan Quick. By contrast, they have won just once in eight road games; and have been outscored 18-11 away from the Staples Centre, where Quick has a 2.31 goals-against average, .927 save percentage and zero shutouts.
The Blackhawks will likely insert Sheldon Brookbank into the lineup who was mostly alternating with Michal Rozsival in the regular season (Brookbank played 26 games, Rozsival 27), but has been the odd man out in the playoffs until now. However, coach Joel Quenneville is expected to spread Keith’s ice time around and up the minutes for Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmaarssson, Johnny Oduya and Nick Leddy. Among the team’s regulars, Leddy plays the fewest minutes, just over 17.
"There are 28 to 30 minutes there that have to go to someone else or right out probably throughout their six guys,” said Stoll, putting on his opposition coaching cap. “Maybe Seabrook will take some more minutes, obviously. I'm sure Leddy will play some more minutes.
“We have to have the same mindset to be on these guys, be hard on them, be physical on them and just make it a tough game for them in every situation on the ice. It may not go our way in the first period or second period, but keep at it and in the third period or if this game goes to overtime, whatever the case may be, they'll be feeling it."