Depth at center has Kings on brink of Cup Final
By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- When Rob Scuderi won the Stanley Cup in 2009, his Pittsburgh Penguins were considered a model for success in the "new NHL." The Penguins were built with strength down the middle -- three elite, young centers.
The Penguins have won just a single playoff series since capturing the Cup. One of their rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers, traded away two elite centers this past offseason and then knocked them out of the playoffs in the first round.
Given the emphasis on goal prevention and shot blocking in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, it has led to the creation of a narrative that maybe the "three centers" philosophy can't reach the same heights of just a few years ago.
The team that Scuderi plays for now might just be proving the model still works. Scuderi's Los Angeles Kings have steamrolled their way to within one victory of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final, and their top three centers are proving to be a matchup nightmare for opposing Western Conference foes.
"Look at the teams that have had success since the rule changes -- not a shocker, but it is solid goaltending in the playoffs, a well-rounded defense and strength through the middle of the ice," Scuderi told NHL.com. "I think that formula probably worked before the lockout, but maybe it sticks out even more looking at the teams that have won."
The Penguins are the most prominent example, because the franchise's revival was built around Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal. Other recent champions have counted depth at center as a big strength as well.
Boston won the Cup last season with David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Chris Kelly as the top three centers. Chicago deployed Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Dave Bolland.
Los Angeles had Anze Kopitar and Jarret Stoll in recent seasons, but general manager Dean Lombardi's addition of Mike Richards this past offseason gave the Kings the depth and talent at the position to match up with anybody in the West.
Vancouver, St. Louis and now Phoenix have found out that when those three guys are playing well -- or even if just two of them are -- trying to defend against the Kings is an uncomfortable proposition.
"Depth is something that we had success with all year," Richards told NHL.com. "It has never been one line. I don't think our line had the best game [Thursday] night, but [Kopitar's] and [Stoll's] line stepped up. The depth of our team is something that we take pride in. We play four lines and we play six D. We more or less just roll it over on the bench unless specialty teams are involved. I think that is were a lot of our success comes from."
Added Stoll: "When we are on our game, we feel that is the strength of our team, but we have to bring it every night and control the puck, starting with the faceoff on out and go from there. Centers control the lines, you are the leader of your line and your pack there and you try to make it work and be consistent."
Richards and Crosby were fierce rivals during his time on the other side of the Keystone State. They are similar players, skilled and gritty and both have been NHL captains at a young age.
Kopitar has been a force of nature in the 2012 playoffs. Blessed with size and skill few others possess, he has put consistency issues in recent seasons behind him. He and Dustin Brown have teamed up on Los Angeles' top line to form the most dangerous duo in this postseason.
He has at least a point in six straight games, and his goal in Game 3 was sublime -- he collected a long pass from Brown and slipped a shot through Phoenix goalie Mike Smith's legs.
Richards had three points in the first game of the 2012 playoffs, then went quiet for the rest of the Vancouver series. Now he has seven points in the past seven games, and his linemate and old friend from Philadelphia, Jeff Carter, had a hat trick in Game 2 against the Coyotes.
Those two have combined with a revitalized Dustin Penner to give the Kings two dynamite offensive lines.
"I think that comes with Darryl [Sutter] and his expectations at the center ice position -- the pressure that he puts on us to kind of organize everything," Richards said. "Obviously we want to put pressure on the puck and we want it as much as possible on faceoffs so we put a big emphasis on that, but really the expectation for us is you work for the whole game."
Added Scuderi: "I think there's no doubt that those guys are top two centermen and they fill those roles perfectly. As far as a comparison to Pittsburgh, I think each player is different. I think Crosby and Malkin may be a little more explosive offensively, but [Kopitar] and [Richards] really give us maybe more of a two-way game. Not to that say that Crosby or Malkin didn't do their responsibilities, but it is not something that you would associate them with primarily."
If that wasn't enough, Stoll's line is clicking as well. He was a monster without the puck in Game 3, and now has two points in the series. His linemate Dwight King has four goals in the three wins against the Coyotes.
"Jarrett was our second-line center for the last few years here, and could probably do it right now if we needed him to but we happen to have depth at the position," Scuderi said. "He's accepted his role and he's played fantastic."
The Coyotes struggled to match up with the Kings at center in the first two games, but when Martin Hanzal was suspended for Game 3 it was a serious problem. Vancouver and St. Louis have elite talent at the position, but not as much depth as Los Angeles.
Few teams do, and if Kopitar, Richards and Stoll continue to play well, Scuderi might get his hands on the Stanley Cup yet again.
"When I think about that team [in 2009] and the depth we had at center and you see this team and the depth we have at center, it is a nice luxury to have while you can have it," Scuderi said. "It is a real tough matchup when you have three guys going, especially in the middle of the ice. It is very important."