Jeff Carter may not be in the center of the Hockey universe, but close to being on top of it.
By AJ PEREZFS West
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Jeff Carter's blond, scruffy playoff beard is just long enough to obscure the chip on the Los Angeles Kings forward's shoulder.
But it reveals itself when he talks about his path to Southern California.
"A lot of people were doubting me out there," Carter told reporters at the Toyota Center on Sunday. "I know that. This is an opportunity to go out there, get a Stanley Cup and prove everybody wrong."
"Everybody" is certainly an exaggeration, although those nonbelievers were quieted — at least briefly — with Carter's game-winning goal in Game 2 on Saturday, an overtime tally that gave the Kings a 2-1 victory and a 2-0 edge in the Stanley Cup Final. The best-of-7 series resumes in LA at Staples Center on Monday night.
Carter was dealt by the Philadelphia Flyers — a team that drafted him in the first round in 2003 — to the Columbus Blue Jackets last June. Exiled could be more accurate, however, as Carter went from a team he helped to the final in 2010 to a team that has qualified for the playoffs only once in its history.
"It wasn't an easy situation obviously," Carter said. "Being in Philly for six years, all you do there is win, right? That's really all you know. They teach you the right way there. Going to Columbus, it was a team that was struggling. Obviously there were some expectations going into the season. Things didn't work out the way everybody had hoped. I'm happy where I'm at now."
When he was picked up by the Kings at a deadline deal in February, Carter was reunited with former Flyers teammate Mike Richards — who was dealt by the Flyers to the Kings that same day in June.
"Right when he got traded here, we were both excited," Richards said of the Carter trade. "Maybe one or two times, we were sitting on a beach on an off day trying to get some rest (and realized) that this is an amazing place to play."
The Southland can be an even more hospitable place if Carter and Richards can lead this 44-year-old franchise to its first Stanley Cup title. Still, this is Hollywood and despite the fact a good portion of the population has hopped on the bandwagon, hockey players, like Carter, typically go unnoticed.
"Once you get on the ice, hockey is hockey," Carter said. "But (in Los Angeles), you can kind of get away from it a little bit. It's been kind of growing a little more. People are starting to recognize us a little lately. Still, it's a little easier to get away."
No, this certainly isn't Philly, where the watchful media is eclipsed only by the rabid fan base that flocks to Broad Street. It was there where Carter and Richards developed a reputation, rightly or wrongly, as guys who enjoyed the nightlife. In the aftermath of last summer's transactions, The Philadelphia Daily News reported that both Carter and Richards refused to sign a pledge not to drink for a month, an initiative implemented by head coach Peter Laviolette.
Flyers GM Paul Holmgren denied partying had anything to do with either trade.
Whatever the reason for the trade, Carter, 27, is thriving. Foot, ankle and shoulder injuries limited Carter to 55 regular-season games and it took a while for him to find his rhythm upon his arrival to Southern California.
The 6-foot-4 center, however, has been stellar in the playoffs. His first career playoff overtime goal was his fifth overall this postseason. He had a hat trick in Game 2 in the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Coyotes and added two assists in the series-clinching Game 5 win over Phoenix.
"This is where hockey is the most fun," said Carter, who has five assists this postseason. "This is what every guy wants to play for. This is where you want to be."
If the Kings close out this series, Carter's chip may remain. The fate of his beard, however, is certain.
"A couple more wins and we'll be getting rid of these real quick," Carter quipped.