Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Flyers West Just One Win Away

A lot has been made about the Los Angeles Kings and their "Flyers West" moniker around these parts, as Philadelphia watches a slew of former Flyers with great interest. John Stevens, Ron Hextall, Justin Williams and Simon Gagne already gave Flyers fans enough reason to tune in prior to this season, and it's only been intensified with former Philadelphia captain Mike Richards and his running mate Jeff Carter shipped off and reunited in LA.

Last night, Flyers West had their prints all over LA's 4-0 victory over the Devils to take a commanding 3-0 lead, just one win away from hoisting the first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

It started out not so great for the former Flyers, however. Mike Richards was called for an elbow late in the first period, and a minute later, he was joined in the box by Carter, who got four minutes for an errant high stick that cut Adam Henrique. There were the two guys we've grown so accustomed to seeing here in Philadelphia sitting helplessly side by side.

But the Kings, even with two of their top penalty-killing forwards in the box, did what they've done all series on the PK, finding a way to kill it off behind some tremendous work and great saves by Jonathan Quick. That would be a recurring theme of the night, remarkable determination by the Kings' defense and back-checking forwards, accentuated by the sheer brilliance of Jonathan Quick.

Quick's shutout performance all but ensured his Conn Smythe Trophy, especially if Los Angeles finishes this thing off in short order.

Things didn't exactly go smoothly for Simon Gagne last night either. Following the lead of Richards and Carter, Gagne picked up a minor of his own in the second period and saw limited ice time. Then again, he didn't look that bad for a guy who hadn't laced them up in more than five months. Gagne's last game was Dec. 26, when he suffered a concussion, and had't played until last night.

It says a ton about both Gagne and coach Darryl Sutter that he was even in the lineup to begin with. After all, the Kings have steamrolled through the postseason without Gagne, and they came in with two road victories to open up the Final. Few coaches would dare make any lineup changes with that kind of run and risk upsetting the chemistry, but Sutter didn't hesitate to reinsert Gagne into the lineup, even after such an extensive layoff. That's because he knows Gagne is a leader and a grizzled veteran who would take nothing off the table, only add to it. Classy move by Sutter to reward such an accomplished and hardworking player as Gagne.

While Gagne wasn't much of a factor and Carter and Richards got off to a slow start, things would quickly turn around for Flyers West, led by the first one to depart the City of Brotherly Love, Justin Williams.

Last night, Williams was as good as I've ever seen him. Playing on LA's top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, Williams has looked every bit the equal of his line mates. That's saying something, seeing as Kopitar is hands down LA's best forward and Brown is the captain. But that's how much Williams has grown, becoming not only a top-line forward, but one who has risen to the challenge.

The Kings' top line was without a shadow of a doubt the best line out there, and Williams played a huge role. He was winning battles and making great plays all night long, and he set up the momentum-changing goal of the game. Entering the zone, Williams slickly played a bank pass back off the boards to Brown, who hit Kopitar driving the net for a one-timer on an absolutely beautiful tic-tac-toe scoring play.

It was the type of smart, subtle play Williams was making all night. He was relentless on the puck and later added a goal of his own. He was as good as anyone on the ice. Well, anyone other than Quick and Kopitar.

We already know that Quick has this Conn Smythe all but wrapped up, and shutting out the Devils in game 3 to put your team one win away from the Cup speaks for itself. The guy is a flat-out stud between the pipes, no matter how much room he seems to leave up top. No one can "elevate the puck" against him, as Eddie Olczyk and Pierre McGuire have been imploring teams to do against Quick all postseason long, because he's so damn good at taking away time and space for shooters. The man has been brilliant all season and postseason.

What many people, including myself, may not have realized before this remarkable run by the Kings is just how good Anze Kopitar really is. Don't get me wrong, I knew Kopitar was an excellent player, a top-line scorer with soft hands and great touch. But seeing as he's played his entire career on the West Coast, I've admittedly watched him very little until this season, when Richards' presence in LA had me tuning in more than ever. And man, I had no idea how fucking good this guy was as a two-way player.

Kopitar is truly a superstar in every facet. He scored arguably the biggest goal of the night, tying him for the postseason lead in goals with 8 — which, oddly enough, put him in a tie with Claude Giroux and Danny Briere, two Flyers who were eliminated a month ago. But more impressive to me has been his defensive work and willingness to do the dirty work. Kopitar is as good a penalty killer as anyone else on that team: Stoll, Richards, anyone. He lays his body out to block shots, shuts down passing lanes and anticipates plays before they're made. He also seems to knock down a ton of pucks on clearing attempts in the offensive zone and win damn near every board battle. The puck just seems to find him every time he's out there.

Last night, he was far and away the best skater on the ice, with only Williams even remotely standing out otherwise. He's on a different level right now, which is exactly why he's right behind Quick in the Conn Smythe race.

Kopitar's brilliance is another reason that adding Richards and Carter has helped propel LA to where it's at now. With Kopitar, Brown, Quick and stud defenseman Drew Doughty being the focal points, Carter and Richards can just go out and play. No more leadership questions, no more overbearing pressure, just a talented scorer and an all-around workhorse allowed to do what they do.

And that familiar tandem connected on the third goal for Los Angeles, with Richards feeding Carter for the power play tally. That's right, Jeff Carter scored in back-to-back Stanley Cup Final games, one an overtime winner and the other essentially the nail in the coffin. And Richards was his normal self, doing remarkable work on the penalty kill, just like all the Kings. LA was perfect on the PK, rarely even giving up quality chances to the struggling Devils. Richards and Carter played a hand in that, and Williams was the one leading the way all game long.

Now Flyers West is just one win away from accomplishing something in Los Angeles that these players never did in Philadelphia. I bet they can drink an awful lot out of that Cup.

No comments:

Post a Comment