They were playing without their leading scorer, Mike Richards, missing because of a suspected concussion. Two of their top offensive players, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, were mired in lengthy scoring slumps. The Los Angeles Kings needed someone to step up to avoid falling into a massive 3-0 series hole in the NHL playoffs and on Tuesday night, they turned to one of their quietest players to make a difference.
Defenceman Slava Voynov established a Kings playoff record by scoring his fifth goal of the postseason and added an assist to give L.A. a 3-1 win over the visiting Chicago Blackhawks at the Staples Center. The victory for the Kings was their 15th in a row at home, eighth in the playoffs, and narrowed the Blackhawks' lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference final to 2-1.
Game 4 is here Thursday night.
Dwight King iced the victory for the Kings with an empty-netter with 27.3 seconds to go, after goaltender Jonathan Quick made an exceptional blocker save on the Blackhawks' Bryan Bickell moments before that could have forced overtime.
"That was probably a game saver for us," said Brown, "but we did a lot better job eliminating their really good scoring chances."
Voynov took over his team's scoring lead from Richards with his two-point performance, just another step in a breakout year for the young Russian who professes to speak little or no English. But he's let his play do his talking on the ice, where head coach Darryl Sutter uses him more than any player on his bench except fellow defenceman Drew Doughty.
That's a lot of trust shown in a 23-year-old from Chelyabinsk, who only became an NHL regular in the first half of last year. In fact, it was Voynov's emergence that permitted the Kings to trade away defenceman Jack Johnson to the Columbus Blue Jackets last season in the Jeff Carter trade.
"He knows a lot more English than he lets on," said Kings defenceman Rob Scuderi, who is Voynov's regular defence partner. "I think it's pretty easy when you're saying the same 10 words to each other over and over. You try to get a feel for each other – and he's done a great job."
Carter was another player who turned in a strong performance for a Kings team that didn't have a lot going for it during back-to-back weekend losses in Chicago to the Blackhawks.
But the Kings reverted back to the formula that helped them win a Stanley Cup championship last year and made them practically unbeatable on home ice – strong goaltending from Quick, plus a good attention to defensive details. Chicago managed only seven first-period shots and then added just three more in the second.
Apart from one bad breakdown on Bickell's goal with 33 seconds to go in the second period, in which Doughty inadvertently took the legs out from under his defence partner Robyn Regehr, leaving Bickell with a wide-open path to the front of the net, the Kings did a far better job of keeping the Blackhawks on the perimeter and out of the offensive zone.
The game had its share of nasty moments, including one exchange in the second period, in which Carter slashed the hand of the Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith after the latter had lost his glove. Keith lost his cool and responded by slashing Carter across the side of the face, earning a double minor on the play.
Carter missed some time getting stitched up and upon his return, it looked as if Keith tried to apologize for his actions – unsuccessfully, based on the television pictures. It is unclear if there'll be any supplementary discipline for his actions.
"It was just a little scuffle at the end," said Keith. "It was an accident."
Unhappily for the Kings, they couldn't take advantage on the power play, where the Blackhawks continue to excel. Chicago had given up only two power-play goals on 47 chances going into the game, for a sparkling 95.7-per-cent success rate. It was a momentum builder for the Blackhawks, and a (temporarily anyway) momentum killer for the Kings.
Voynov's second-period goal gave the Kings a 2-0 lead and involved a little bit of puck luck. Rookie Tyler Toffoli started the play by driving towards the net, but lost the puck as he tried to stickhandle. It slid right between Keith's legs, to Voynov, who moved to the top of the circle and snapped the shaft of his stick in half with the shot. The change-up that followed appeared to fool Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford and slid into the net off his pad.
"I'm just glad he finally broke his stick and actually got the puck on net," said Brown, with a smile on his face. "He breaks more sticks than anybody I've seen. Normally, he's shooting that puck from the blueline and the guy's coming back on him, one-on-one with a stick. So it's nice to see one go in the net."
Scuderi added: "If you work hard enough, it's amazing how much good luck you might get. I thought we worked hard that shift, had a couple of good chances, a couple of good looks, and we end up getting a broken-stick goal of all the shots we took, but sometimes it happens."
In Richards's absence, Sutter shifted all of his lines around, moving Jarret Stoll up to the No. 1 line with Brown and Justin Williams and dropping the slumping Kopitar down to the third line. Williams contributed a key first-period goal for the Kings, on a great feed from Voynov, who found a seam between the Blackhawks' defensive coverage and got it right on Williams's tape for an easy one-timer. Stoll played his best game since returning at the start of the series from a concussion that kept him out of the final six games of the San Jose Sharks series.
But mostly it is Carter's versatility that salvaged the day for the Kings. In some ways, Carter looks more comfortable in the middle, where he can use his speed more effectively, than he does on the wing.