EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — The Los Angeles Kings reached the Stanley Cup finals with a zealous dedication to a detailed game plan — and a remarkable willingness to throw it out the window when necessary.
The Kings used both facets of their personality in a 3-2 overtime victory over the New York Rangers in the finals opener on Wednesday, and they realize it might be necessary again in Game 2 on Saturday.
The Kings won the Western Conference with four distinct line combinations playing together for the vast majority of their first 21 playoff games. After Los Angeles fell behind 2-0 to the Rangers, coach Darryl Sutter briefly shuffled all four centers to spark his team, and it worked.
“I think we started out slow,” center Jeff Carter said Thursday on the Kings’ day off. “We didn’t have our legs, I think, from puck drop. When you get down 2-0, you’ve got to do something to get everybody going. (We) flip-flopped a little bit there. It started working for us, so we kept going with it.”
Carter, second in the NHL with 23 playoff points, had been dominant in the postseason on a line with youngsters Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson — dubbed “That 70s Line” because their jersey numbers are all in the 70s. On the top line, Anze Kopitar had been centering goal-scorer Marian Gaborik and captain Dustin Brown in a potent scoring trio.
But when the Kings fell into another multigoal deficit in the first period of the series opener, coach Darryl Sutter made changes on the fly. Jarret Stoll took Carter’s place with the kids. Carter went to the fourth line, where he immediately assisted on a goal by grinder Kyle Clifford. Mike Richards played with Gaborik and Brown, and Kopitar moved onto Stoll’s original line.
“It wasn’t the start we wanted,” said Clifford, who hadn’t scored a playoff goal since April 2011. “Decided to make line changes. Just went from there. Everybody just went about their game, tried to make it better.”
The Kings rarely make such wholesale changes, and Sutter shuffled his deck again several times during the game.
He figured the Kings might benefit from a jolt of unfamiliarity after dragging through the first period just 72 hours after their cathartic overtime victory at Chicago in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals.
“Partway through the first period, I recognized guys didn’t have their game,” Sutter said. “It was a lot of guys. Jeff played a lot with Kyle and Trevor. Stolly played with everybody. Basically, we were trying to manage (Kopitar’s) game.”
Kopitar is the leading scorer in the NHL postseason with 24 points, but he has just one goal in 15 games since the first round. On television during Game 1, Wayne Gretzky said Kopitar is the league’s third-best player behind Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews, a declaration that made Kopitar smile when he heard about it.
“The guys just really showed the character yet again to battle through, no matter what — slow legs, sloppy play, their good start,” Kopitar said.
Sutter has found exceptional balance in his line combinations during both of the Kings’ runs to the Stanley Cup finals in the past three years. Just as Carter’s arrival in a trade in 2012 allowed Sutter to balance out his lines, the acquisition of Gaborik from Columbus in March helped transform the low-scoring Kings into the NHL’s highest-scoring playoff team.
The Kings might have changed linemates, but their forwards didn’t change their dedication to puck possession and defense. Both of the Rangers’ goals came on scoring chances created by mistakes from the Kings’ defensemen, and Los Angeles limited New York to three shots in the third period.
“For our team, it’s just a result of us being together for a long time,” Brown said. “I think that goes a longer ways than most people think.”