Mike Richards (left) and Jeff Carter were traded within 30 minutes of each other in 2011, and now they have the Kings poised to take a second Stanley Cup while the Flyers are languishing in mediocrity

By Lisa Dillman

Chicago Blackhawks v Los Angeles KingsKings Coach Darryl Sutter and his boss, General Manager Dean Lombardi, were talking about their personnel and reviewing video during the Olympic break in February, not necessarily preparing just for the spring playoff run but beyond that.

What they came up with during those sessions turned into a playoff piece de resistance: putting the versatile Jeff Carter back at his natural position, center.

“As a coach, you’re always saying, ‘Now, now, now.'” Sutter said on Sunday. “But you do it more in a longer way, just look at it differently, how the young guys are going to play, Tyler [Toffoli], Tanner [Pearson].

“At that point, those two kids were still guys that couldn’t be here because of [salary] cap, but we wanted to get here somehow. Not just have them here, but play them….Jeff, we like him at center. Even when we got him, we saw him as a centerman. We weren’t in that position yet to do that. He’s comfortable anywhere. He just wants to play a lot.”

The Kings acquired Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets just before the trade deadline in 2012 and had more of a pressing need for wingers back then. This season, they made several moves — a combination of trades and waiver moves — to get under the cap to bring up the kid wingers, Toffoli and Pearson, and they traded for another winger, Marian Gaborik. They also moved the struggling Mike Richards down the depth chart at center. Carter essentially adopted the No. 2 role, centering Pearson and Toffoli.

The team’s strength down the middle is enviable: Anze Kopitar, Carter, Jarret Stoll and Richards.

“I think being in the center may help him a little bit just with getting more speed,” Richards said of Carter, his friend since their days together in Philadelphia. “He’s always stepped up ever since I’ve known him in the playoffs. He’s always been the guy that in big games and situations, he always steps up. At key points in the game if we need momentum … it’s that line that’s given to us right now.”

Carter’s dramatic upsurge in playoff scoring has helped give the Kings a lead against the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals and they start the finals tomorrow night against the New York Rangers.

Carter had back-to-back games of four points and three points, and is keeping the Elias Sport Bureau busy with daily updates, it seems. Carter became the Kings’ second-leading scorer in the postseason with 19 points, one point behind Kopitar and four ahead of Gaborik.

Now the Blackhawks are talking about Carter, Toffoli and Pearson the way the San Jose Sharks and the Ducks talked about the likes of Kopitar and Gaborik in the first two rounds. In this round, Kopitar, Gaborik and linemate Dustin Brown have combined for one point, an assist by Kopitar in the Kings’ 6-2 win in Game 2.

“I played with Jeff Carter a bunch in my career, and he’s a great center man, he can play the wing as well,” Blackhawks winger Patrick Sharp said of their days together with the Flyers. “He’s healthy right now. He’s skating great. He’s full of confidence. All three of those guys have an offensive touch, but they play well away from the puck. And they’re scoring goals right now.”

Carter put together his four points — a hat trick and an assist — in the third period of Game 2 in about 41/2 minutes of ice time in the third. He scored on his first shot in Game 3.

You might say he is like a star striker in soccer. He might get one chance, but he somehow finishes despite precious little time and space.

Justin Williams marvels at his teammate’s ability to take advantage of the smallest openings. And Williams is hardly a slouch around the net himself, having scored 27 playoff goals, including six goals in seventh games.

“Little spots, little openings,” Williams said. “He can get his stick on it and get a chance. That’s why he’s a special player. Not many guys can do that. He’s a versatile player that has the ability to explode.

“Sometimes you wish you had the steps and the length, the skating ability he has. He’s very confident in his abilities, and that’s an extremely important thing to have. To know you can go out there against somebody else and if you play your game, you’re probably going to be better than him.”

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