By Shawn P. Roarke - NHL.com Senior Managing Editor
LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles Kings have won 11 of their 12 games in this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs. They're just one win away from their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 19 years after beating the Phoenix Coyotes 2-1 on Thursday night in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final.
So how has the No. 8 seed in the West put the Pacific Division-champion Coyotes on the ropes, preparing to deliver the same knockout punch that has already KO'd the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks and the second-seeded St. Louis Blues?
"Going hard, using our speed and turning over pucks," said center Jarret Stoll, who set up the game-winning goal in Game 3 by employing just that formula in the second minute of the third period.
Stoll went in hard, stole the puck from Phoenix defenseman Mike Stone along the half wall and chipped it to Trevor Lewis behind the net. Lewis won a puck battle, drawing a delayed penalty in the process, and then fed Dwight King, who wheeled out of the corner and snapped off a sizzling wrister from the right circle that beat the glove-hand flourish of goalie Mike Smith.
Just like that, Los Angeles had overcome a 1-0 deficit -- the first time the Kings had trailed in six games -- and taken a 2-1 lead. But there were still more than 18 minutes left to survive against a team desperate to make this best-of-seven series a contest.
So what happened? The Coyotes managed all of four shots in the do-or-die period, barely testing Jonathan Quick, and the Kings escaped with a victory that leaves them on the precipice of an almost unthinkable accomplishment.
"The last few minutes, we pressured them really well and had good puck control," Lewis said.
In fact, the Coyotes barely got past the center red line in the second half of the third period. Their final shot on goal -- a 50-footer by Taylor Pyatt -- came with 9:04 still on the clock at the Staples Center.
Time after time, the Kings would dump the puck behind the Phoenix defensemen and then go hard after it. More often than not, the dump-ins were placed in such a way as to ensure that Smith, perhaps the best puck-handling goalie in the League, could not play it.
Too often, that meant that whichever Phoenix player had the puck -- more often than not one of the six defensemen -- was left with nothing but poor alternatives. If Phoenix was lucky, the puck at least made it to the neutral zone before it ended up back on the stick of a Kings' player.
The Coyotes actually had the better of play in the first period Thursday night, putting the Kings back on their heels for long stretches and managing 11 shots.
"I thought our first period today was the best we've been in the series so far," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said.
But Los Angeles center Anze Kopitar says that the Coyotes had success because the Kings allowed it.
"I think in the first period, we were turning over the puck quite a bit in the neutral zone," Kopitar said. "Every time you do that, your skates are facing the wrong way, obviously you got to backcheck. You don't get a whole lot of flow, not a lot of offensive-zone time.
"After that, we cleaned it up, got the pucks behind the D. We weren't trying to make a perfect play on their blue line. We got in there, got some cycles going, it worked out for us."
Once Kopitar scored on a breakaway at 3:10 of the second period to match a goal by Phoenix center Daymond Langkow 127 seconds earlier, the Coyotes never seriously threatened again. They managed only seven shots in the final 38:57 of the contest.
Phoenix coach Dave Tippett blamed his team's struggles on an ability for players throughout the lineup to get up to the speed with which the Kings were playing the game.
"We need more people making plays at critical times," Tippett said. "If you see, a lot of our execution, some of the execution starts in the defensive zone, the neutral zone, to get you to the offensive zone. We continue to turnover some pucks that I think are easy plays to make. We've had trouble executing.
"Whether the speed has gone up, we can't get to that level, whatever the reason is, we're not generating enough and not getting enough sustained stuff in the offensive zone to feel like we have a hard push on."
According to Lewis, Tippett is right. It is all about speed when it comes to the forecheck of the Kings.
"It is our physicality and our speed," Lewis told NHL.com. "You got big guys coming in to finish their checks, that's the first thing. Spacing is the second thing. Right now, we are reading off each other and our spacing is really good and when you have the spacing, the pressure and the time that they have to make a good play is very limited."
The Kings' forecheck is almost as simple as it is deadly.
It is designed to force plays to be made faster than is effective. The first forward comes hard at the player with the puck. The second forward reads and deciphers the options for the puck-carrier, then moves to take away the most likely alternative.
"Just reading [the play]," King told NHL.com. "Obviously, when one guy has pressure on the first D man, you can kind of tell where they are going to go with the puck and linemates can read off that and you get the early jump and they have no chance to make a play. When they have no chance to make a play, you are more likely to get it back."
The final 40 minutes of the game Thursday proved to be a perfect example of that philosophy.