In the end, it came down to a battle between the two Canadian men’s Olympic stars, going mano-a-mano, engaging in a constant battle of one-upmanship.
In one corner, there was the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jonathan Toews, brilliant in the first period, with two goals, and providing the sort of inspirational leadership that has helped his team win two Stanley Cups in the past four years.
In the other corner, there was the Los Angeles Kings’ Jeff Carter, a proven NHL sniper, the sort of player who when he gets hot, sometimes gets really hot. Jerry Reed hot. Carter answered the Toews challenge with a three-point night Saturday, leading the Kings to a 4-3 victory over the Blackhawks in Game 3 of another stunningly well-played playoff game in the NHL’s Western Conference final.
The win gives L.A. a 2-1 series lead heading into Monday’s fourth game.
Even though they had the home-ice advantage, the Kings started with the match-up that Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville favored in the first two games, Toews going against the Kings’ Anze Kopitar, his fellow Selke Trophy nominee. Far less attention has been paid to the play of the respective second lines, Carter between two kids, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, who have thus far widely outplayed their Blackhawks counterparts, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, centered by the aging, slowing center Michal Handzus.
In all, the Carter line has produced 15 points in the series and the trio has combined for 19 points in the past four games, dating back to the Kings’ victory over the Anaheim Ducks in the seventh game of the second round.
The Kings have had a crazy up-and-down playoff run, coming off the ropes in the opening round with a win over the San Jose Sharks and then knocking off the Ducks to set up a rematch of last year’s Western Conference final with the Blackhawks.
The primary differences this time around: The Kings have many more dimensions to their scoring attack, in part because Toffoli and Pearson have meshed so well with Carter, who is a natural centre and thriving at that position. Goal scorers just find a way, even if it isn’t always pretty, and Carter was the first to acknowledge that four-point outburst in the third period back on Wednesday was largely a case of being in the right place at the right time.
“That’s how it goes,” assessed Kings’ captain Dustin Brown. “Ty [Toffoli] is another guy like that. You see some of the goals that those guys score. They are goals, if it was someone else, they wouldn’t have gone in the net. That’s why they’re goal-scorers.”
Second-period goals by Carter and Toffoli helped the Kings turn a one-goal deficit into a lead they would not relinquish.
Carter tied it on a feed from Pearson when the Kings kept a puck alive between the net because it hit the referee’s skate, Handzus losing Carter, who was in the slot and perfectly positioned to convert Pearson’s centering pass.
Moments later, Toffoli took a Willie Mitchell head-manning pass and split the Blackhawks’ defence, going backhand-forehand on goaltender Corey Crawford and then slipping the puck underneath his pad. Crawford appeared to be in good position on the play, but his pad lifted off the ice a tiny fraction as Toffoli shot, just enough to give up the go-ahead goal.
“I think everyone is stepping up all at once, knowing the job we have to get done,” said Pearson. “We’re definitely rolling pretty good, but we can’t take our foot off the gas pedal. We’ve got to keep on going, each and every game. We’re capitalizing on our chances and it’s working out for us.”
Carter had played mostly right wing for the Kings since joining the team in a 2012 trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, but they shifted him to centre just before the Olympic break because the nominal No. 2, Mike Richards, had struggled in that spot.
Brown described Carter as the team’s most versatile player: “I think having the ability to play centre or wing probably tips it in his favour a little bit. Carts, you look at him and he’s a goal-scorer. And Kopi, you look at him and he’s a hockey player. He does all the right things at the right time. Where Carts, you get it on his stick and it is in the net. For him to be able to switch back and forth, from wing to center, is really a big plus for our team. A lot of it is just because of his skating ability.”
A goal by Drew Doughty with 8:03 to go in the third period cemented the Kings’ lead and ultimately stood up as the winner when the Blackhawks got a goal from Sharp with 4.2 seconds to go in regulation. Doughty’s marker came two seconds after a Michal Rozsival high-sticking penalty had expired. Earlier, Slava Voynov had scored a first-period power-play goal for the Kings, sifting a long shot past Crawford on the same penalty where Toews had opened the scoring with a short-handed goal. And while Crawford didn’t have a terrible outing, he was outplayed again by his Kings’ counterpart Jonathan Quick.
“We’re going to keep pushing for that next level,” said Toews. “That’s what it’s going to take against these guys. They want it really bad. They’re playing hard. Even when they have leads against us it seems like they get even better. For us, it’s just a matter of continuing the effort we started with in the first period – keep doing the things we’re doing. We’re really close.”
Special teams were a factor in the game, with the Blackhawks failing to convert on four chances with the man advantage, while L.A. had one official goal on the power-play and another just seconds after a penalty had expired.
“I know they took penalties too – and we’ve got to score on our power plays, myself included, said Duncan Keith, the Blackhawks’ power-play quarterback. “I’ve got to be better on the power play.
“We had our chances to score. Give them credit on their PK, but if we score one on the power play, it can change the momentum of the game. On the other hand, we have to do a better job on the PK and try to stay out of the box.”