Kings looking for production from second line
LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Darryl Sutter offered high praise for the team's newly assembled fourth line, the only line to see a shift in personnel in the best-of-seven series they lead the Vancouver Canucks three games to one. Brad Richardson, nine days removed from an appendectomy, slotted alongside Colin Fraser and Jordan Nolan and quickly established chemistry, setting an aggressive tone early with a handful of threatening shifts in the first period.
"I thought that line played really well," Sutter said. "It may have been our best line."
That's high praise, considering it came following a 44-shot performance referenced by the Kings' coach as probably the team's best game of the series, never mind the losing effort in a 3-1 decision.
That the fourth line was the team's best line is a trend that should not continue. If the Kings are going to finish off a significant upset -- they would become the 10th eight seed to upset a one seed since conference playoff realignment in 1994 -- they're going to need the Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams line and the Dwight King-Mike Richards-Jeff Carter to be their best lines on a nightly basis.
The Kopitar line has been a heavy factor in the team's success this series, but since combining for five points in a Game 1 win, King, Richards and Carter are all scoreless and a minus-three.
It's an unlikely trend, considering the impact Richards had on Game 1 of the series. His crafty sharp-angle power play goal tied the game late in the first period, while his clean, open-ice hit on Alexandre Burrows late in the third served as the punctuation on an awfully thorough road effort. Since then, his contributions have been felt most strongly on the team's penalty kill.
With nine points in 16 regular season games, Carter's value in Los Angeles wasn't measured as much by goals and assists as it was in drawing the attention of other teams' defensive markers, opening up space and possibilities for Brown, Williams and Kopitar. While that may also be true in this series, it doesn't obscure the view that Carter hasn't contributed with a significant moment since his assist off Dustin Penner's skate in Game 1.
There's the thought that the expansive NBA-like first round schedule that keeps the Kings out of action until Sunday will allow Carter to build up endurance on the injured ankle that kept him out of action for the final five games of the regular season.
"I'm getting better," Carter said. "I think with the two days before last game, and then the extra day here, it was probably not an ideal situation, but for myself, personally, and some other guys around here that are a little banged up, it's nice to get a little extra rest."
Though Carter's 23 points in 51 career playoff games are a touch off his career marks, they're still more productive than the rookie King, whose 14 unsung points in 33 regular season games have been followed by four scoreless playoff efforts. The hulking and strong 22 year old's fundamental boards play hasn't provided the team the same lift as it did throughout February and March, and he's looked a touch slow, especially when constantly seeing action against the faster wingers that comprise Vancouver's top six, such as David Booth and Mason Raymond.
While there will be challenges heading back to Vancouver to close out a series – the first of which is finding out the starting time of Sunday's game, a delay Sutter referred to as "beyond frustrating" – a prime focus will be to get off to a quick start once again and minimize the boost the Canucks receive from their home crowd. Vancouver's 58 points generated at home this year are the fourth most amongst Western Conference playoff teams.
"Obviously our start on Sunday is going to be our focus, and carry it through," Richards said. "You can only worry about things that you can control, and the start is one of them."
Another thing that the Kings can control is staying out of the penalty box. Stating that playing five-on-five hockey is the best way to minimize the impact on the game by the Sedins, Sutter for the third straight day recognized the importance of being aware of the possibilities created by the world class skill when the two are on the ice.
"I think it's pretty clear of how good of players they are, and they've got great, great instincts when they're together," he said. "It makes such a difference when they're together."
If Sutter has as equally high of praise for one of his top two forward lines following Game 5, there's a pretty good chance that the delay over a second-round schedule will soon draw his attention.