In March, just as the Los Angeles Kings were about to mount the 11th-hour surge that got them into the playoffs, a veteran NHL scout sitting beside me in a press box predicted - apropos of nothing - that they had little chance in the postseason because of one key, but easy-to-overlook factor.
“They have the worst third line in hockey,” he said.
The Kings' third line, at the time, consisted of Jarret Stoll, between Trevor Lewis and Dustin Penner, and to be fair, it had had its share of struggles. Penner was in the midst of a challenging regular season, distracted by a divorce that kept popping up on TMZ. Stoll, usually good for 15 to 20 even-strength goals, wasn’t putting up any numbers, and Lewis was Lewis - a buzzsaw winger in the Travis Moen/Jordin Tootoo mode, one of the few NHLers ever to hail from the great state of Utah, but someone who had 23 career points in 155 career games heading into the playoffs.
But things have changed, as Bob Dylan once sang.
Penner is no longer with the unit, switching places with Dwight King, who was the Kings’ scoring star in the first three games of their series versus the Phoenix Coyotes, counting four goals. Stoll has had a sensational playoff, good in the faceoff circle, and is playing hard tough minutes, sometimes against the opposition’s No. 1 line.
In any deep playoff run in recent years, the third line becomes important for one of two reasons. Either it is the de facto checking unit, sent out to neutralize the opposition’s top scorers; or, if the match-ups go head to head and the top six skill players cancel each other out, then the difference makers on offence needs to come from among a team’s pluggers.
And while each member of the unit had his regular-season disappointments, there is little doubt that they have been perhaps the best third line in the NHL playoffs.
“They’ve had some of our most timely goals in the playoffs this year, Stoll getting the series clincher (vs. Vancouver), Kinger’s had a couple of game winners,” said Kings’ captain Dustin Brown. “The one goal I really remember, which was kind of the dagger in the St. Louis series, was they scored 40 seconds after they scored. That helped us in Game 3 - and really demoralized the Blues.
“When you get those types of contributions from them, and then you get Lewy (Lewis). He hasn’t been getting the goals, but he’s had some key assists and I’m sure he’s no fun to play against. He’s really physical and can skate.
“They’re all hard on whoever they play against, which goes a long way, especially now. We’re in the third round. This is when you start to fatigue maybe a little bit and when you have big, strong guys leaning on you, it makes it that much harder.”
It was a sentiment that Coyotes’ captain Shane Doan echoed. The Coyotes have just five goals in four games in the series and could use some secondary scoring of their own if they want to extend the series.
“That King/Stoll/Lewis line has arguably been the best line of the series,” acknowledged Doan. “The level is so intense. There's so little room, you have to have other guys step up. We need other guys to step up. Obviously, it would be big to get some scoring from everybody.”
For the second game in a row, the Coyotes face an elimination game, and according to Doan, it is a curious thing how his team has a tendency to push it to the limit in these playoffs. Mostly, in the first two rounds, they’ve had games in their hands, only to lose them in the last seconds and then need to come back and win in overtime. Long-term, the tendency to play with fire is a risky proposition.
“We joke we need to change our slogan: ‘it's hockey the hard way.’
We've made it the hard way at every turn,” said Doan. “Hopefully next year it's hockey the easy way. We're comfortable being in a situation that's difficult. You don't always want to have to be going there.”