King-sized emergence lifting Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES — On Jan. 22 in Hershey, Pa., brothers Dwight and D.J. King faced off against each other for only the second time in their professional careers. A grinding AHL winger who also has appeared in 118 games with the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals over parts of six NHL seasons, 27-year-old D.J. and his Hershey Bears were on the losing end of a decision against his brother, five years his junior. Dwight had a goal and an assist for the Manchester Monarchs in a 4-2 victory on the road at the Giant Center.
A proud older brother was in attendance Thursday night at Staples Center on a much larger stage as Dwight King scored the winning goal 1:47 into the third period of Game 3 to lift the Los Angeles Kings to a 2-1 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes that leaves the title-less franchise one win from the Stanley Cup Finals.
Dwight King now has five goals in 12 playoff games, including four in the three games against Phoenix, and has emerged as an unsung rookie contributor among the likes of Daryl Evans and Gary Shuchuk in Kings postseason lore — two words that aren’t as mutually exclusive as they were six weeks ago.
“I think everybody’s just getting a little bit more confident in their game,” King said of what has come together to manufacture an 11-1 postseason record. “Obviously the progress that we’ve taken to get here, just the pressure from late in the season to right now, we’ve had to play good hockey for a while now, so we’ve just continued that better, and it’s showing up.”
Also showing up have been new features to King’s game as he is now buoyed by the confidence he described as being integral to the team’s success.
A towering presence along the boards and around the opposing net, King offered a snapshot of his multifaceted ability when, on a delayed penalty early in the third period, he scooped up a puck deep in the corner before circling around unmarked to the right faceoff dot, where he beat Mike Smith up high, glove side, with a lethal wristshot. The play seemed to distance itself from the close-range, net-crashing tallies he had offered during the second half of the regular season and the prior 11 playoff games.
“Well, tonight’s goals were totally different than Game 3,” Darryl Sutter said. “I don’t know about him on his own. The last game we played . . . all four goals were screens, tips and rebounds. Tonight was a breakaway and a play coming out of the corner where the goalie saw it. You know, you’ve got to score in different ways, and he’s done that.”
“He even scored an empty-netter,” Sutter added, referencing the second of King’s two goals in the series-opener on Sunday.
All four lines are clicking under Sutter, with each line capable of stepping up on any given night. On Sunday, it was the Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams line combining for four points. On Tuesday, Jeff Carter netted a hat trick as he combined with Mike Richards and Dustin Penner for five points. Tonight, the chemistry between King, Jarret Stoll and Trevor Lewis was flowing, with Lewis once again providing a glut of excellent, perhaps under-recognized minutes over all 200 feet of the ice. He drew the penalty just before King’s winner, which punctuated an excellent shift of puck possession deep in the Phoenix zone.
“I’ve played with Lewie down in Manch. Pretty good chemistry,” King said. “I know how he plays. I know how he works, and that’s what you want in a linemate. We just kind of read and react off of each other. It makes it pretty simple up there.”
Sutter’s decision to flip flop King and Penner — King had seen much of his late-season action alongside Richards and Carter, while Penner had been slotted with Stoll and Lewis — has paid tangible dividends for this streaking club that has won eight straight overall. Penner and King have combined for seven goals and 13 points over the postseason’s first 12 games.
“Right now we’re playing good. We’re playing consistent,” King said. “When you do that, you give yourself a chance to win every night, and with our goaltending and our top guys playing as well as they are, we’re a tough team to beat right now.”
Much has been made of the unsung performances lifting this Los Angeles team toward what would be its second Stanley Cup Finals appearance. Nineteen years ago, Gary Shuchuk was the 26-year-old rookie who had all of 31 games of NHL regular-season experience before he potted a double-overtime winner to lift the Kings to a 4-3 win in Vancouver on their way to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. Eleven years earlier, it was current Los Angeles color commentator Daryl Evans whose overtime goal capped a five-goal comeback as the Kings defeated Edmonton 6-5 in the famous “Miracle on Manchester.” It was part of Evans’ five-goal, 13-point performance over 10 games in the 1982 playoffs.
Neither of those teams captured the only important prize, though. If King continues to aid the team’s spread-out scoring efforts, and Los Angeles maintains its defensively astute play in front of Vezina Trophy candidate Jonathan Quick, this team will be achieve more than just being the all-of-a-sudden favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
“Every time you need different guys stepping up, and Kinger’s doing it right now for us,” Stoll said. “Quickie’s been doing it all season. You go through a long playoff run, and you get a chance to play deep in the playoffs, you need different guys to step up. You need different ways of winning games, and we’ve had that. We’ve had our top couple of lines providing offense and winning us games some nights. Some nights it’s Quickie. Tonight, our line had a good game. Kinger chipped in with a huge goal for us, and we’ll go from there.”
While he’s staying focused, it’s a situation not lost on the clutch rookie.
“Obviously you dream about this, and it’s going well for me,” King said.