Game 2 of the Western Conference Final between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings was really interesting in how it was like two different games. The Blackhawks led 2-0 late in the second before Justin Williams scored to key a run of six unanswered goals for the Kings to tie the best-of-7 series 1-1.
Jeff Carter was a superstar in this game, scoring three goals and adding an assist. The Kings power play was also amazing. But it seemed to be Williams' goal with 1:46 left in the second that turned things around.
I was texting with one of the Kings after the game and I asked him for a couple of keys to that game. As one of the more veteran players on the team, he mentioned that Game 2 featured one of the most energetic and enthusiastic intermissions that they've had in his time there, and he's been there for some time. They felt they had a really good opportunity after getting that late goal in the second. They were very upbeat, evidently, in the locker room and they felt they had to strike. Chicago up to that point was 7-0 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs at United Center and they felt they had to get a stranglehold on that game, which they did.
For everyone who was watching Game 2, the story was Jeff Carter. The difficult thing with Carter is he skates so well and is rangy, and he can pass as well as he shoots. That makes him a very difficult guy to defend 1-on-1. He can beat you in so many ways.
He had a monster game, but his linemates, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, also had big games. Toffoli made a big defensive play along the goal line, and that line torched the Blackhawks for seven points in Game 2.
A story that wasn't told much in Game 2 was how Anze Kopitar was 15-6 in the faceoff dot and Jarret Stoll was 14-8. Those are runaway numbers. You look at how that game turned on its ear and how L.A. generated so much offense. If you're cleaning up the faceoff dot with that efficiency, it's pretty tough for the other team to make plays.
The Blackhawks are the defending champs, but let's not forget that the Kings are also a Stanley Cup championship team. We have a Cup team against a Cup team here. Each is built to win the Stanley Cup, so L.A.'s performance speaks to the great players in their leadership group. Not just the guys who wear letters, but other members of that leadership group, like Justin "Mr. Game 7" Williams and Willie Mitchell. Jonathan Quick was sensational when he needed to be and Kopitar didn't get on the board, but look at what he did in the faceoff circle.
Carter is now part of that group.
Carter really put the Kings on his shoulders. His first two goals in Game 2 were great, but I liked the empty-net goal he scored to wrap up the game because it was a function of how good he is defensively. When you go back and watch the clip of that goal, watch where he was defensively in the neutral zone. He denied the pass and shut down that lane to break up the play and then goes the other way to get the goal. It all comes from good defensive instincts.
That goal showed how Carter has really developed into a three-zone player. I always thought he was a great player when he was with the Philadelphia Flyers, but seeing him with L.A. he seems more competitive and better rounded as a player. He's added dimensions to his game. He's a penalty-kill guy and a power-play guy. He's won Olympic gold, a Calder Cup and of course the Stanley Cup. There's something to be said for that, and I don't see any drop-off in his game because he skates so well.
I feel he's matured and his game has matured in the past few years. Just from seeing him around and knowing guys who played with him, you can see how he's more mature. You can see how he's been open to evolving his game.
I would say the Blackhawks had their transition game going in most of Game 2. They generated a lot of opportunities through the middle of the ice for a while. Nick Leddy's goal was a great example. They had other 2-on-1 opportunities in the game after that, so the neutral zone is really key to this series. It kind of mirrors what we have seen so far with the New York Rangers. So far in the Eastern Conference Final against the Montreal Canadiens, the Rangers have done a great job of controlling the neutral zone. You have to give the Rangers credit there.
Whoever controls the neutral zone will ultimately win each series. It's that important.
That's one more reason why it helps to have a star like Jeff Carter on your side.