In Game 3 of the conference finals Thursday, Lewis took a hit in the corner from Antoine Vermette and set up the game-winning goal by Dwight King. L.A. enters Game 4 on Sunday one victory away from its first Stanley Cup Final appearance since 1993, and Lewis has quietly done his dirty work on the Kings' 11-1 stomp through the postseason.
"He was always a terribly fast, hard-working guy and he's invaluable at this level," Kevin Westgarth said. "You can see he works the hardest out there, and he's got a lot of confidence going now. That's huge. He's willing to carry the puck through the neutral zone and do a lot of stop-up plays. But his work ethic and his speed is what obviously has really gotten him to this level and made him flourish."
COYOTES VS. KINGS
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By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer The Kings third line took starring roles as the Los Angeles defeated the Phoenix Coyotes 2-1 at Staples Center to earn their eighth straight victory and a 3-0 series lead. READ MORE ›
As recently as December, Lewis was struggling just to stay at the NHL level as his role with the Kings became precarious under former coach Terry Murray. Lewis developed in the team's system for four seasons and Murray played him on the second power play unit in last season's playoffs. But Lewis fell out of favor with Murray and was scratched in nine of 10 games from Nov.22 to Dec.13 – the initial low point for the Kings this season.
Lewis felt some uncertainty about his place on the team. Then Darryl Sutter was hired on Dec.20 and sat down with Lewis and told him to "use my speed and my head," Lewis said.
"Kind of always what I thought I can do. He kind of gave me the confidence to do it. I know I wasn't playing my best, but I never really got a chance to get back in when Terry was here. When Darryl came in, I kind of [got] a fresh start. He kind of gave me a chance to play, and I capitalized on that and my confidence has grown since then."
A third-line grinder cut out of the Sutter mold, Lewis is part of a stellar penalty killing unit and among the team's fastest forwards. Since the third line of Lewis, King and Stoll was put together at the tail end of the quarterfinals, it became another wave in L.A.'s relentless forecheck, and it led the way in Game 3 of the conference finals.
Sutter, who beats the drum of identity, gave Lewis one upon his arrival and hasn't had to check twice for it.
"He's quick and he's physical and he's smart, and those are three things that I like," Sutter said. "It's hard to explain, but players like that -- for the way his style that I like to play, it's a huge value. I think it's important for guys to know that. He can give us serious five-one-five minutes and he can give us some serious PK minutes."
Lewis is rather anonymous on the Kings, which is fitting given his hockey background. One of the few NHL players from Utah, Lewis grew up in Salt Lake City where "there wasn't much hockey for anyone to play," particularly before the 2002 Winter Olympics were staged there.
Trying to forge a pro career, Lewis moved to Colorado Springs at 15 and broke in with Des Moines of the USHL. In the OHL, Lewis was the third-leading scorer on an Owen Sound Attack team that featured Anaheim Ducks forward Bobby Ryan.
General manager Dean Lombardi, in his first draft with the Kings, traded up to pick Lewis 17th in the 2006 draft. He was the team's second pick after goalie Jonathan Bernier. Lewis spent the next four seasons in Manchester of the American Hockey League, playing at various times with what is now the youth base of this Kings' run in Jordan Nolan, Alec Martinez, Slava Voynov.
Westgarth eventually graduated up to the big club with Lewis and watched Lewis lose his place in the lineup during those dark December days. Westgarth said he never saw Lewis get discouraged.
"He's such a great teammate, you never really knew," Westgarth said. "You'll get a bit of that from guys going out of the lineup. But that's understandable – you don't make it to this level if you're not [upset] when you don’t play. Maybe a tiny bit, but you'd never see it in the dressing room, you'd never on the ice. He's always working his [butt] off."
It's not surprising that Lewis was selected by teammates, along with Rob Scuderi, for the team's Unsung Hero Award in April. Besides his usual grunt work, Lewis chipped in his second career playoff goal in Game 2 of the quarterfinals. He has assists in three straight games going into Sunday.
Far removed from his 35-goal season in juniors, or even his 20-goal season in Manchester, Lewis says this was the natural evolution of his career but he feels he can still show up on that stat sheet.
"I didn't think I was drafted to be a 50-goal scorer," he said. "I knew what my role is. I probably developed into getting more goals, but I figured I'd probably start out at this point and kind of work my way up and start producing more. I think once my confidence keeps going up, I can definitely start producing."