As a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets, Jeff Carter spent much of this season behind hockey’s red velvet ropes. Carter and his Columbus teammates were mired in the basement of the Western Conference, leaving the sniper with no shot at being invited to hockey’s ultimate happening.
Then the Kings called. When Carter picked up, his spirits soared as he was whisked to the front of the line and into the middle of a playoff chase. When Carter learned he had been traded to the Kings in exchange for Jack Johnson and a first round draft pick, the news meant one thing and one thing only.
“I was excited to come to the Kings because it put me in the thick of a playoff race,” Carter said. “This is what every guy in the NHL plays for – to play in the playoffs and have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. Coming to Los Angeles definitely gave me a big boost.”
The Stanley Cup playoffs have that kind of juice. Just being near the postseason can provide a jolt to players and fans alike. When Carter first joined the Kings, they were battling for one of the final playoff spots in the Western Conference. But it was enough to ignite a fire within Carter, who in his fourth game with the Kings scored a pair of goals in a pivotal 4-2 win over Anaheim at STAPLES Center.
“It was a long year for me in Columbus, but when you find out you are coming to a team like the Kings, it’s exciting,” Carter said. “The games all felt like playoff games with the situation that we were in. When you are playing for a shot at the playoffs, in every game you are battling for your life and they are all must-win games.”
Carter’s arrival was, in part, designed to help spur his teammates as they jostled for playoff position, but it was those teammates who revitalized the new arrival.
“One thing that I noticed when I came in was that these guys come in and prepare like every game is a must-win,” Carter said. “They realize how important they are. It’s been good.”
Carter also noticed that his new team plays a style that is a lot like playoff hockey. The Kings have been one of the NHL’s top defensive teams all year long, especially in goals against average. He also likes the fact that the Kings have had to battle to get into the postseason tournament.
“When you look at the teams that have been successful in the playoffs recently,” Carter said, “in the last 25 games of the season, they are gearing up and they get up to full speed before the playoffs even start.”
When Carter first began coming to Los Angeles as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers back in 2005, he did not know what to expect. Now, he considers STAPLES Center one of the league’s best places to play.
“The atmosphere at STAPLES Center is great,” he said. “Even coming here as a member of the away team, it was always fun to come and play in L.A. It’s a great rink and the fans here are great, too. When I first came to play against the Kings, I didn’t know what to expect. You are going to California and you have no idea what it’s going to be like. But once you get in the building, you realize that the fans are hockey fans and they love their Kings. It’s great to play here.”
Joining familiar faces, like former Philly teammate Mike Richards, in the locker room made for a seamless transition to the Kings.
“I was pretty fortunate in that when I got here, I already knew quite a few of the guys,” Carter said. “Knowing Mike so well definitely made it easier. It can be tough when you go to a new team and you don’t know anybody. I walked in there and there were a lot of familiar faces, so it was good.”
Richards was happy to see Carter, too.
“Jeff is obviously a good player,” Richards said. “He is a guy that can score goals. Not only that, but he doesn’t put himself in bad positions defensively. I think the focus of the organization speaks volumes about what they want to accomplish.”
But when Carter walked into the Kings’ locker room, he didn’t just see familiar faces. He saw a team capable of doing great things in the postseason.
“At the start of the year,” Carter said, “I looked at the Kings as a team that could really do some damage.”
Carter knows what it takes to go on a postseason run. Two years ago, he and Richards were a part of the Philadelphia team that came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup before falling to Chicago in the Finals.
“We didn’t get there,” Richards said of hockey’s Promised Land, “but we were close. That kind of leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Knowing that you were two wins away from having the Cup is tough to take. It’s definitely something that you want to get back to, and you want to finish the next time you get there.”
Carter is ready to finish the job. Every time he sets foot inside a building for a playoff game, he feels a rush of adrenaline.
“There is a different feeling in the building at playoff time,” he said. “There’s a little bit of nervous energy, a little bit of adrenaline, kind of all boiled up in one. It’s pretty special.”