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Stoll rediscovering his offensive game

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

Jarret Stoll did just about everything a team could want this season. He missed only four games. Played on the power play. Killed penalties. Won a high percentage of faceoffs. Served as a solid locker-room leader.

Stoll did just about everything, except the small matter of putting the puck in the net. Oh right, that.

No matter what he did, or how many games the Kings won, the whispers were never far away. How, and why, had Stoll lost his scoring touch? How could a player who had scored at least 13 goals in each of his last six seasons -- including 20 goals last season -- a player still in his athletic prime, score only six goals?

It’s a mystery that will probably never be solved, a question that probably has a few contributing answers, but at this point, Stoll couldn’t care less. After a puzzling regular season, Stoll scored the biggest goal of the Kings’ season to date on Sunday, when his top-shelf wrister ended overtime in Game 5, eliminated the Vancouver Canucks and sent the Kings to the second round of the playoffs to face the St. Louis Blues.

Stoll also scored a goal in the Kings’ Game 2 victory over the Canucks. Should the Kings beat St. Louis, and particularly should Stoll play well, the fact that he went nearly half of the regular season without scoring a goal will be easily forgotten. For a 29-year-old center who got tantalizingly close to the Stanley Cup six years ago, the end of the season is all that matters.

"We're off to round two," Stoll said. "To be honest with you, I wouldn't care if I had a point, if we were off to round two. I'd be just as happy. That's just the way I am. That's the way a lot of us are in here. That's what makes us a good team, and an unselfish team. It's great to contribute. Obviously you want to contribute and score goals and help your team in any way possible, if that's scoring goals or whatever, but as long as we're winning games, at this point of the season, that's all that matters.''

Stoll said that, after his overtime winner on Sunday, he received approximately 140 congratulatory text messages. On most nights this season, Stoll’s cell phone didn’t get much activity.

Stoll knew things would be different this season. The Kings’ June acquisition of Mike Richards meant that Stoll would move from the second line to the third line. His ice time would dip a bit, his defensive responsibilities would increase and his wingers might not be quite as offensively talented, but at the start of the season, coach Terry Murray talked about how he thought the move would be good for Stoll.

Having a 20-goal scorer centering the third line, the theory went, would significantly boost the Kings’ balance and improve their 5-on-5 scoring. It didn’t turn out that way. Stoll scored only one goal in his first 22 games. Asked, at that point, about Stoll’s numbers, Murray quipped, "What numbers?"

If those words got back to Stoll, they had to sting a bit. Stoll certainly knew, without being told, that he wasn’t meeting expectations. Stoll’s lack of production was magnified by the fact

that the Kings, as a team, spent a bulk of the regular season as the lowest-scoring team in the NHL.

"The production obviously fell off, and that's something, for me personally, that I wasn't happy with," Stoll said. "I wanted to contribute more. I know if we had had our so-called third line scoring more in the regular season, maybe we would have had a better regular season, and all those things. But when it comes down to it, it didn't happen, and here we are today and we're off to the second round. You've got to try to contribute any way you can to help the team.

"I've said it many times before. If we're winning games, I don't really care what people say and what people think. It doesn't really bother me. I've learned that much. Playing in Edmonton, I think I learned a lot from that side of things, what people expect, what people don't expect, what people say. If you're worried about that, you're going to have yourself a tough life.

"Obviously I would have liked to have scored more, but as a team, we're further than we were last year, and further than we've ever gotten since I've been here. I'm certainly happy about that. I'd rather take that than scoring 20 and losing in the first round."

Late in the season, Stoll went 33 consecutive games without a goal, but including playoffs, he has now scored three goals in his last seven games. Moreover, throughout the drought, Stoll continued to do many things to endear himself to teammates. He hits, he blocks shots, he backchecks and is one of the Kings’ most valuable penalty-killers.

"He means a lot to this team, as far as our identity and how we go about preparing for games and how we play the games," goalie Jonathan Quick said. "Whatever his stats were -- you said he was down, but I couldn't even tell you that -- I know that he prepares as hard as anybody to play games. He works as hard as anybody when we get out there. He's been a real leader in this locker room for a few years, since I've been here at least, I know that. He means a lot to this team in that sense."

Late into the season, the Kings settled into a third line of Stoll centering Dustin Penner and Trevor Lewis. That’s a line that combined for only 16 regular-season goals, but scored four goals in the first round, with Stoll netting two and Penner and Lewis each getting one.

Stoll reached the Stanley Cup Finals with Edmonton in 2006, but didn’t get out of the first round again until last weekend. In helping the Kings get to the second round for the first time since 2001, Stoll is getting a fun reminder of the joy of playoff hockey.

"I'm 29 years old, but we've all heard it before, from other guys that I've played with," Stoll said. "You never know when you're going to get back to the playoffs and win a series, win two, three series and get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. We've got a lot of work ahead of us yet, but that was a big step for our organization, a big step for a lot of guys that had never won a series before. From our goaltender on it, there was a lot of gained experience, throughout this series, that will definitely help a lot in the future here."

The immediate future includes a second-round series against St. Louis, a gritty, aggressive team with a deep group of forwards. The Blues and Kings were the two most stingy teams in the NHL this season, in terms of goals against.

In his third-line role, traditionally that of a defensive-stopper center, Stoll will be asked to contribute on both ends in a series in which goals figured to be at a premium.

"My nephew is staying with me right now," Stoll said. "My mom and my nephew are here, and he was saying, 'This might be the lowest-scoring series of all time,' he tells me. Hopefully we're on the better end of those scores."

Wouldn’t it be remarkable if Stoll picked now to rediscover his scoring touch?

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