Other than a bizarrely ineffective first period power play and a jointly conservative third period that reduced the game to a number of icings and stoppages, the Kings and Blackhawks played a tight game sustained by a good pace and high-quality goaltending that was ultimately won when Jeff Carter’s sharp wristshot from outside the left dot snuck underneath the crossbar just inside the far post as Tyler Toffoli provided a netfront screen. It wasn’t a power play goal, but Los Angeles showed good urgency in exchanging pucks and getting them towards the front of the net while on the man advantage and won the necessary battles to keep the puck in the offensive zone in doing so. Chicago has won its share of games this season without playing its best or controlling the pace of play, and in recent years they’ve admirably punctuated their annual Circus Trip with a strong performance at Staples Center, but on Saturday it was the home team that appeared to dictate the game’s tempo, illustrating again that it’s about playing and making good reads and decisions with pace, and not individual speed, that more greatly influences winning today. The Kings benefit more from the former, though a more mobile defense has helped them keep up in the latter.
Los Angeles trailed 1-0 after one period despite dictating the tempo and tied the game less than a minute into the second period on one of their sexier five-man-unit goals of the season. Jeff Carter won an offensive zone draw, which Tanner Pearson dropped back to Alec Martinez at the right point. He exchanged the puck with Jake Muzzin, who got it back to Carter along the half-wall. His laser-directed, seeing-eye pass across the zone found Martinez creeping in to the right faceoff dot, and his wristshot clipped the underside of the crossbar while beating Scott Darling high-glove. That’s practically a drawn-up play worked multiple times a year in practice, and it was similar to a power play goal scored by Dustin Brown against Dallas late in the 2012-13 season in which all five players on the ice touched the puck within a span of five seconds before Brown finished off the play by burying a Carter rebound. Martinez, though, endured some injuries and growing pains associated with stepping into a wider and more challenging role over the past two seasons; he’s now reaping the awards of having done so. His average time on ice, beginning with the 2013-14 season: 15:41, 19:56, 21:09, and now 22:52. His shooting percentage is higher than his career average but isn’t absurdly unsustainable, and he’s on pace to set career-highs in goals, assists, points and shots. Whereas 13 of his 31 points last season were recorded on the power play, only three of his 14 points to date (all assists) have been grabbed with the man advantage.
Speaking of those whose importance to this year’s team can’t be understated, it’s hard to imagine where the Kings would be right now if, say, Jeff Carter was among those who missed time with an injury. I had a conversation with Jim Fox before last night’s game where we discussed who has been the club’s MVP through the first 20-plus games of the season, and while Alec Martinez and Peter Budaj were also names brandied about, it’s difficult to come up with anyone other than Carter. Again, it’s not just the goals that have been the most impressive aspect of Carter’s game – Jeff Carter Does A Lot Of Things Well is the new Hey This Jake Muzzin Might Actually Be Really Good – but his routes to pucks, his reach, his checking, his ability to shoot off the rush, his even temperament, his ability to dig pucks free and his situational awareness are part of a comprehensive package that has allowed him to score the game-winners in four of the last five games. Los Angeles is 8-3-1 in its last 12 games, a span in which they’ve contended with injuries to load-bearing pillars of goaltending and team personnel, and Carter’s play, along with a string of standout performances by heavily worked goalie Peter Budaj, has greatly benefited the team as it begins getting key players back.