There was a funny moment involving Jeff Carter on Wednesday night, soon after the Los Angeles Kings had registered that extraordinary 6-2 come-from-behind victory over the Chicago Blackhawks to even their best-of-seven playoff series at a game apiece.
Carter was responsible for scoring three of the Kings' five third-period goals, though the first (originally credited to Drew Doughty) caromed in off him and the last went into the empty net. In short, they were right-place, right-time goals, but nothing to inspire oohs and aaahs or gain play-of-the-day notoriety.
Still, three goals is a deciding factor in any game and so Carter was presented at the podium alongside goaltender Jonathan Quick, which is where the difference makers in the playoffs go to explain their heroics.
On cue, someone asked Carter about scoring four points on seven shifts in 4:31 of playing time and if that was the best period of hockey he'd ever played.
Carter laughed at the absurdity of that and answered: "I didn't really have to do too much for them. Stood in front of them for the first one. Greener [Matt Greene] and Tanner [Pearson] made a great play on the second one, so...
"It was a good period, but ...."
Typically, goal scorers tend to shrug off what they do. The really good ones have a natural tendency to be in the right place at the right time and probably everyone watching the Western Conference final in Columbus now is acutely aware that the last two players the Blue Jackets sent to the Kings – Carter in 2011 and Marian Gaborik this past spring – are now 1-2 in NHL playoff goal-scoring.
Thus far in the series, the two No. 1 lines – Jonathan Toews' unit for the Blackhawks and Anze Kopitar's for the Kings – have mostly negated each other, with Toews' unit ahead by a nose. Where L.A. has had the edge is in the contributions from its second line, which usually features Carter playing centre between two youngsters, Pearson and Tyler Toffoli.
They accounted for four of the six goals in the Game 2 victory and Toffoli also made a key defensive play, whisking the puck off the goal line to save a goal after the Blackhawks' Peter Regin had been cross-checked into Kings' goaltender Jonathan Quick by Willie Mitchell. By contrast, the Blackhawks' No. 2 line – which has been in a state of flux for big stretches of the series – hasn't gotten much from either Patrick Sharp or Patrick Kane thus far in the series.
"I think Jeff Carter gets overlooked," said Kings' coach Darryl Sutter on Thursday, upon returning home from Chicago with a split in the first two games. "He was the leading goal scorer in our conference last year. I know a lot of the talk in this series has been about a player on our team [Kopitar] and a player on their team [Toews].
"Jeff is just as important to our team as both those players that are getting talked about. Those kids get an opportunity to play with a top player in the Western Conference. That pretty much speaks for it."
In January, seeking to snap the Kings out of one of their annual goal-scoring funks, Sutter put Carter and Kopitar on the same line, and while that worked out fine for them, the team was getting little offence from anywhere else in the lineup. Ultimately, Sutter switched Carter back to centre, his natural position, where he can use his speed to drive put opposing teams on their heels. Strategically, it may have been the turning point of the Kings' season.
Toffoli and Pearson were promoted from the minors, and Gaborik was added at the trade deadline, providing the Kings with a more balanced attack. Moreover, Carter seems happier this year, energized by his inclusion on the Olympic team, renewed in some ways by the happy-go-lucky kids he's playing with.
"I think he really showed to everyone in the world what he could do in the Olympics this year," Toffoli said. "It's incredible to play with him. He's a real easy guy to play with. I've said it a lot of times. He's really honest. He'll let you know if you're doing things right or wrong. I think that's what is making our line successful so far."
Suddenly, he is the senior citizen on the line.
"I mean, it goes quick when you're in this league," Carter said. "It seems like just yesterday that I was the young guy, just going out there, wheeling around, playing hockey and having fun. You definitely see that with them. They have a blast out there. It's a lot of fun."