Stoll finds his niche on Kings' dynamic third line
By Curtis Zupke - NHL.com Correspondent
By December, in the waning days of the Terry Murray era, Stoll was among those Los Angeles Kings forwards accused of under-producing offensively -- and therefore, he was seen as a contributor to their lack of secondary scoring.
Those who predicted how the season would unfold for Stoll and the Kings should proceed to the nearest casino.
Stoll turned in one of the finest playoff performances of his career Thursday night in a 2-1 victory against the Phoenix Coyotes at Staples Center that gave L.A. a 3-0 series lead in the Western Conference Finals.
Stoll put his gloved fingerprints all over the game from start to finish. The highlight was his steal from defenseman Michael Stone that led to Dwight King's game-winning goal early in the third period. Stoll also drew two Phoenix penalties in the first two periods and danced around Daymond Langkow for a shot on goal in the third.
It was enough for Kings coach Darryl Sutter to roll out his ultimate adjective of approval.
"When he's slotted right where he is, he's awesome," Sutter said. "He had a strong powerful game tonight. I thought him and [Anze} Kopitar were outstanding."
While the top line of Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams took more abuse -- Brown was severely facewashed by Shane Doan while Williams took a stick in the mouth courtesy of Michal Rozsival -- it was Stoll and his line's turn to impact the series.
"[Stoll] really stood out to me with his jump – he jumped by two guys, drawing a penalty on one," Brown said. "He had opportunities left and right. Again, that's part of the reason we're a successful team right now is we have everyone going. On different nights, we have different players elevate their games."
L.A. continues to get big performances from all four lines. In Game 1 it was Brown's line. In Game 2 it was the second line of Dustin Penner, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. In Game 3 it was time for Stoll, King and the unsung Trevor Lewis, who took a hit in the corner to set up King's fifth goal of the playoffs.
"[We're] just working hard for each other, working well off each other -- communicating, talking, moving our feet," Stoll said. "We've been playing well this whole series together. We've been working, creating chances, getting turnovers."
King, a rookie, is a beneficiary of Stoll's veteran savvy. The big power forward has goals in three straight games and five in the last five games. In February, King and roommate Jordan Nolan were toiling in the American Hockey League and not regarded among the organization's top prospects. But both have played their blue-collar roles well in the Kings' run through the Stanley Cup Playoffs. King was playing on the second line with Richards and Carter but he says it changed when Sutter moved him down.
"We've just been playing a different role," King said. "We're more of a forecheck line. That's what I've been used to in my first couple years' pro here. I'm accustomed to it and it worked well for us."
King doesn't have much perspective, but he obviously rated Game 3 among the best he's seen from Stoll.
"He played great," King said. "He's been good for me and [Lewis]. He keeps things stable back there."
Stability didn't describe Stoll earlier this season. He was moved around as Murray and the Kings experimented to boost their anemic offense, and he didn't really climb in to his role as a two-way center. He had different linemates, and his scoring dropped from 20 goals last season to six.
But when Sutter stabilized the lines after the addition of Carter in late February, Stoll came alive as the third-line center. Swapping Penner for King on left wing gave L.A. a good, hard, forechecking line.
It was exactly how the Kings would have liked for it to play out in, say, October. But Stoll and the Kings took a long time to figure out their identity. Stoll's role was somewhat gray when the team traded for Richards in June, but Stoll said he never grew concerned.
"If I'm playing to my capabilities, I know I can contribute and play different roles and different situations, and I think our coach knows that too," Stoll said. "I was very happy when we got Mike, and the depth on our team just kept growing and growing. We get Jeff and a great deal was made by [general manager] Dean [Lombardi] and everything came together."