LOS ANGELES AND EL SEGUNDO, CA — Prior to the start of the 2014 Western Conference Final, much of the talk was about the upcoming battle between two of the top centers in the National Hockey League, Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings, and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks.
Conventional wisdom dictated that for whichever player won the battle between them, their team would win the series.
So far, the advantage goes to Toews.
Indeed, Kopitar has contributed just one assist in the series so far, and his line mates, left wing Marian Gaborik and forward Dustin Brown, have been held without a point in the series by Toews’ line, with Bryan Bickell and Marian Hossa on the wings.
Although Toews is winning the battle so far, the Kings are winning the war, as things have not gone according to Hoyle, in terms of the battle with Kopitar and its impact, not with the Kings winning Games 2 and 3 to take a 2-1 series lead into tonight’s Game 4 at Staples Center in Los Angeles (6:00 PM PDT; televised in the United States on NBCSN, and in Canada on TSN and RDS).
Primarily responsible for the wins in Games 2 and 3 is the Kings’ line of left wing Tanner Pearson and right wing Tyler Toffoli, centered by Jeff Carter, which has been dubbed the “That 70’s Line,” named after the Fox sitcom with the very similar name that aired from 1998-2006.
That line has combined for seven goals and seven assists, with a +12 plus/minus rating in Games 2 and 3 against the Blackhawks.
Carter has been on fire, scoring four goals and adding three assists for seven points, with a +4 plus/minus rating in the two games, while Toffoli has three goals and three assists for six points, with a +3 plus/minus rating in Games 2 and 3.
Pearson has contributed four assists and has a +5 plus/minus rating in the two games.
In short, that line has smoked the Blackhawks, who did not have an answer for them in Games 2 and 3, no matter what line Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville put on the ice against them.
“They’ve been very effective,” Quenneville told the media after his team’s practice in El Segundo, California on May 25. “They’ve been dangerous, be it off the rush or in the zone. They’ve scored some pivotal goals, the last two games, particularly. I think just about every one of our lines played against them in the game yesterday.”
“I think we have to be aware when they’re on the ice because they’re effective, they’re quick, they can all make plays, they all recognize one another,” Quenneville added. “I think defending them more so off the rush and keeping them from getting clean possession in our zone is what we’re looking for and hopefully, getting them defending their end.”
“Certainly they’ve been very dangerous. We’ve got to be aware of them.”
Speed has been the most potent weapon for Carter and his young line mates.
“They’re stepping up,” said Carter. “They use their speed, and they keep the puck going ahead. When they get chances, they’ve got as much skill as anybody on the team, and they’ve been showing it.”
“A lot of the goals we’ve scored have come from them using their speed, tracking down loose pucks, and creating turnovers,” added Carter. “As soon as they do that, their instincts are to get the puck right to the net, and that’s been working for us.”
“Our speed is helping us,” said Pearson. “We’re trying to get pucks into the offensive zone. A couple of goals have come [off of plays] behind the goal line, so I think I think it’s just putting pucks to the net and seeing what happens.”
As Pearson alluded to, it’s more than just speed. What many might not expect, especially from Pearson and Toffoli, is that they are strong enough to win physical battles along the boards and in the corners, helping them dig out loose pucks and create turnovers.
“They’re big guys, Jeff, Tanner and Tyler,” said center Mike Richards. “They have that physical ability to have that size advantage. They’re tenacious, they have young legs, and whatever it is—they seem to have a lot of energy, and as a team, we’re feeding off that.”
“Those three, they don’t need much room,” added Richards. “They just seem to find the areas. They’re all natural goal scorers, and especially Jeff. He doesn’t need much room or [many] chances to capitalize.”
“Tanner’s got that speed, he gets on defensemen quickly, and he gets to pucks. Same with Jeff—he’s fast. Tyler’s just a smart hockey player. He puts himself in good situations. I played with him a little bit over the last couple of years. He just seems to find that open ice, and [he has] that knack [to know] where he needs to be. That’s something you can’t teach. That’s just hockey sense that you [gain] over the years.”
Richards also pointed to the solid positional play of Pearson and Toffoli.
“They’re smart, Richards observed. “When you put yourself in good position, it allows you to have the puck on your stick, and you don’t have to waste energy chasing the puck if you put yourself in good position.”
They are also keeping things simple.
“[We’re] getting pucks deep, getting lots of pucks to the net and creating traffic,” said Toffoli. “You can’t score goals unless you get the puck on net and drive to the net.”
Although Carter is on fire, and is the veteran presence on that line, if you ask him, Pearson and Toffoli are driving the car and he’s just along for the ride.
“They have a lot of chemistry from playing together at Manchester,” said Carter. “They’re working and they’re having fun. They use their speed and their skill to create opportunities and they’re kind of dragging me along with them, so it’s been good.”
“Tyler was a big part of our team last year, in the playoffs, especially when [Richards] went out, he really stepped up,” added Carter. “Tanner was around [during last season’s] playoffs, so he’s kind of been through it and [he’s] seen it.”
“Those guys have played in big games before, [while] working their way through junior [hockey]. They’re great players. Great players shine at big times.”
The emergence of the That 70’s Line has not only provided the goal scoring that has been non-existent from the top line of Gaborik, Kopitar and Brown against Chicago, but it has allowed head coach Darryl Sutter to spread out the ice time, making for fresher legs late in the game.
“There’s been a lot of games where our four lines have been around 15, 17 minutes [ice time],” said center Jarret Stoll. “Your pace of play has to be high. It should be. That’s how we want to play. We don’t want to have dips in our play. We want to keep our play high—the speed of the game.”
“Once that third period comes, when it’s tough hockey in the third period, we’ve still got some gas, some jump to play the way we want to play,” added Stoll.
“When we roll four lines—we’re tough to stop when we do that,” said Richards, who added Carter’s line has become the Kings’ go-to line.
“That whole line has created a lot of momentum for our hockey team throughout games,” said Richards. “It seems that whenever the other team is trying to create momentum, or has momentum, they step up in a big way.”
“At key points in the game, if we need a momentum swing, it seems like it’s that line that’s giving it to us right now,” added Richards.
As for that guy who’s just along for the ride, don’t you believe it.
“I think a player who gets overlooked is Jeff Carter,” Sutter noted. “He was the leading goal scorer in our conference last year. I know lots of the talk in this series has been about a player on their team and a player on our team, but Jeff Carter is just as important to our team as both those players that everybody’s talking about.”
“Those kids, [Pearson and Toffoli], are getting the opportunity to play with a top player in the Western Conference,” Sutter added. “That pretty much speaks for it.”
By all indications, both are very much aware of who they’re playing with.
“He was probably younger when he came into the league, so he’s been there,” said Pearson. “He’s helping us out when he can, and we’re talking a lot about certain plays we need to improve on, [but] right now, things are working out for our line.”
“Jeff has established himself as a scorer over the years, and Toffoli can put the puck in the back of the net, as well, added Pearson. “[Generating] offense is what we’re out there to do, and I think we’re doing a good job so far.”
Shifting to the center position might be a factor in Carter’s offensive explosion.
“Jeff, you know, we like him at center,” said Sutter. “Even when we got him, we saw him as a centerman. We weren’t in that position yet to do that. He’s comfortable anywhere. He just wants to play a lot. That’s sort of what it is.”
“Being [at] center may help him a little bit, just with getting more speed,” said Richards.
To be sure, Carter’s line is using their speed effectively and they’re getting their noses dirty along the boards on the forecheck. But at an even more rudimentary level, they’re having fun out there.
“I’m having fun, this is incredible,” said Toffoli. “As a young guy, you dream of being in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the past three games have been probably my best three games of the playoffs, so you just have to keep playing hard and you want to win, so I’m just trying to help the team.”
Carter, Pearson and Toffoli have been flying, and were unstoppable in Games 2 and 3 against Chicago. If the Blackhawks still can’t find an answer to that line in tonight’s Game 4, this could be a shorter series than just about anyone expected.
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