For most of three playoff rounds, Jeff Carter has been on the periphery of the Los Angeles Kings' magical playoff run. Carter did a little bit here and a little bit there, but the heavy lifting was primarily done by goaltender Jonathan Quick, defenceman Drew Doughty and the dynamic duo up front, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.
But when the Kings needed a play from him, it was Carter who stepped up at a timely moment.
Carter, an 11th-hour trading deadline addition from the Columbus Blue Jackets, scored the biggest goal of his short Kings' career Saturday night. It came 13:42 into overtime and gave L.A. a hard-fought 2-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils and a commanding 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup final.
The opener went to the Kings, also by a 2-1 score, on an overtime goal by Kopitar. It had been 61 years since the first two games of a Stanley Cup final went to overtime - the 1951 series between the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs, in which all five games required extra time.
The gap between the Devils and Kings isn't much these days, but it's enough - enough that the Kings have now won a record 10 consecutive playoff games on the road.
Heading home for Game 3 Monday night at the Staples Centre, L.A. is two wins away from the first Stanley Cup title in its 45-year franchise history.
The sequence leading to Carter's goal began when he went around Devils defenceman Andy Greene along the boards and sent the puck to the front of the net. He continued around the net and arrived at the far post just as the puck squirted free, serendipitously allowing him to retrieve it in full stride. Carter then circled back out high and seeing a crowd in front of the net, fired a 40-footer through traffic that beat goaltender Martin Brodeur stick side.
"Playoff hockey, you put it on the net as much as you can," said Carter. "It's usually a cheesy goal. But Penns (Dustin Penner) did a great job of getting right in front of Marty there. To be honest, I don't even know if he saw around Penns, or even saw the shot."
It marked the 25th overtime game of the 2012 playoffs, the third highest total for one playoff year. Road teams are now an extraordinary 16-9 in OT in the playoffs and the Kings have won all four times that their games spilled into extra time.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter called it a game of "heavy lifting" fought mostly along the boards: "Quite honestly, for a good part of two periods, they were controlling that part of the boards. We're going to have our work cut out for us going home."
In the 12 previous times that a team won the first two games on the road in a Stanley Cup final, nine went on to win the championship.
The Devils came oh-so-close to winning the game with seven seconds to go in regulation, when Ilya Kovalchuk had a scoring chance from point-blank range, just as a penalty to Kings' defenceman Drew Doughty was running out. But Kovalchuk, getting pressure from Kings' centre Anze Kopitar, hit Kings' goaltender Jonathan Quick in the shoulder with his shout, which deflected off the crossbar, but stayed out.
"It's tough," acknowledged Devils coach Peter DeBoer, "but you can't feel sorry for yourself. We played a much better game, as I knew we would. We did it the right way. We just came up one goal short."
As DeBoer suggested, the Devils did up their game considerably, game over game, but they are still having a hard time getting much past Quick cleanly. Quick is giving them fits in a way that Henrik Lundqvist, the other Vezina Trophy finalist they ran into these playoffs, didn't, or couldn't.
New Jersey's third-period tying goal came when Ryan Carter - stationed in the high slot - redirected a Marek Zidlicky slap shot that bounced twice before it skipped into the net past Quick.
Earlier, Doughty scored one for the highlight films 7:49 into the opening period, a brilliant rush, virtually end-to-end, a rush that left Carter standing flat-footed at the Devils blue line. He managed to stay ahead of Stephen Gionta backchecking, and through Bryce Salvador's screen that finished with a snap shot stick side. It was reminiscent of goals scored by Scott Niedermayer, the former Devils' great, in playoffs past, a point Doughty raised himself post-game.
"I actually remember Niedermayer when he played in New Jersey having a couple of end-to-enders," said Doughty. "He was an unbelievable player here, everywhere he played. i always wanted to emulate him. He always scored some highlight goals that I remember."
"He made a great play, a 200-foot play, one of those coast-to-coast things," assessed Sutter. "You'll look at that a lot of times. Win or lose, that's a great play."
Both Brodeur, the veteran, and Quick, the emerging star, were both exceptional in a game that had far more action than Wednesday's sluggish opener. The ice conditions were vastly improved and it showed in the overall caliber of the play - and the number of quality scoring chances.
Until Ryan Carter's tying goal, Quick had earlier established an NHL record by playing 183 minutes and 19 seconds of shutout hockey in the third period and overtime, a streak that stretched back to the second round versus the St. Louis Blues.
Carter's goal was the 10th scored by the Devils' fourth line in these playoffs.
It was the only line that DeBoer didn't switch around in the third period, looking for a goal. He stacked the top line - Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac and Zach Parise - and also got some decent shifts from a new second line that consisted of Adam Henrique, Dainius Zubrus and Patrik Elias.
"It was just a shot in the arm to try and find a goal," said DeBoer. "We haven't scored enough obviously."
Doughty, meanwhile, continues to flourish in these playoffs for the Kings. He brings a dimension to the series that the Devils had in the old days with Niedermayer, a highly skilled, minute-munching defenceman that can be a difference maker, offensively and defensively.
Sutter seems to appreciate the latter as much as the former, insisting pre-game on Saturday: "I've never seen him play poorly. I think that's the part of the problem, right? I think the expectations that are put on him, they're not real. I mean, you have to do it on a game-to-game, shift-to-shift, period-to-period basis. Not like he's 30 years old, been in the league 10 years.
"He's a great skater, sees the ice well, (and is a) great competitor. If you do those things incrementally, focus on things like that, you have a chance to be a really good player."