Slava Voynov #26 of the Los Angeles Kings plays the puck from Patrick Kane #88 of the Chicago Blackhawks to teammate Jeff Carter #77 of the Los Angeles Kings in the first period of Game Three of the Western Conference Final during the 2013 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Staples Center on June 4, 2013 in Los Angeles, California.
Photograph by: Harry How, Getty Images
LOS ANGELES - Luc Robitaille, Wayne Gretzky, Slava Voynov. As they say on Sesame Street, which one of these things is not like the others?
Robitaille’s nickname in his playing days was “Lucky,” based in part on the number of big goals he scored for the Los Angeles Kings.
But luck didn’t have much to do with it. The law of averages did. He played 94 playoff games over 11 post-seasons in L.A., scoring 41 goals, so it stands to reason that he also holds the team record for playoff game-winners, nine.
Gretzky was only in on five playoff seasons during his years with the Kings, but scored 29 goals in those 60 playoff games, so the only surprise about his five game-winners is that the number isn’t higher.
Voynov? The 23-year-old Russian defenceman is in just his second playoff season, operating with a significant language barrier, and he’s already nipping at Gretzky’s heels, tied for third (with Butch Goring) in Kings history at four GWGs -- all four of them this spring, which neither Robitaille nor The Great One managed in a single Kings playoff season.
His name is all over the game notes: seven points his last six games, his five goals in a single playoff year already a team record for defencemen, the four GWGs a club record for any skater, and a team-leading plus-10.
Other than that, how’s it going?
“Well, it is flukey that he’s in the same category with (Robitaille and Gretzky),” says Kelly Hrudey, the goalie-turned-TV analyst who played with both of them, “but Voynov’s game has grown tremendously. He’s really taken a leadership role with the puck, and what I like about him is when he makes a bad play, he doesn’t go to the bench and sulk and lose himself. He goes right out there and plays.”
Unusual for a young player?
“Totally,” said Hrudey. “I was talking to a young defenceman earlier this year and he told me that the one problem he has, if he makes a mistake early, it crushes him. Like, he can’t recover. You look at (L.A. rookie Jake) Muzzin, and he’s a pretty good young player, but if he makes a mistake he gets frazzled pretty quick.
“And Voynov just looks to me like he puts it behind him. That’s a rare quality.”
That, of course, doesn’t explain how a defenceman ends up alongside luminaries who had dominating careers and might expect to top such lists.
Voynov may never score big goals at this pace again his whole career -- take, for example, his Game 3 winner in Tuesday’s 3-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, which teammate Justin Williams called a “broken-bat single.” Voynov stepped into a slapshot, his stick snapped in two and the puck somehow kept going in the general direction of the net, but so slowly it completely handcuffed goalie Corey Crawford.
“He’ll never, ever score a luckier goal,” said Hrudey.
But Kings coach Darryl Sutter, while acknowledging that luck and circumstance have played into Voynov’s streak -- “I wish there were some other guys on our team that had more game-winning goals,” he said, only half-joking -- contends that it’s more than just a goofy coincidence.
“We put him in position to succeed a lot,” Sutter said. “Quite honestly, he has more opportunities to shoot the puck than most guys on the team, it’s the way it’s set up for him, so we expect him to take full advantage of it.”
“No, he’s awesome,” said Kings veteran Matt Greene. “He’s been great for us the whole time and I think it’s good that he’s getting some of this recognition. He’s been awesome night in and night out. Since the day he got here, he’s been a top-4 defenceman and he’s always had that offence in him, shoots it really well, smart player.
“He’s just scratching the surface, he’ll be good for a long time.”
Sutter couldn’t even remember if Voynov was with the team, or in the minors, when he took over the coaching reins halfway through last season.
“He wasn't playing much if he was here,” Sutter said. “It was a big adjustment for him. There definitely was a language barrier. Whether he was uncomfortable with not wanting to converse, whatever it was. That's an issue.
“The next part of it was, because of the roster, the team, I know there was a point that we sent Slava back to (AHL) Manchester. Then he came back to the big club when we traded for Jeff (Carter). Basically it was to replace (Jack) Johnson.
“We were saying, ‘Okay, we're on a fine line here, we're seeing if we're a playoff team or not, but let's put the young player in there, have a veteran player to partner with him. What's the progress he's made since then? I think we put him in a position to succeed, not to fail.
“There's been highs and lows in this season. There's been highs and lows in this playoffs, that's for sure.”
But paired with Rob Scuderi, Voynov has become a third solid right-hand defenceman, along with Drew Doughty and Matt Greene, and though he’s not big, he doesn’t play timidly.
“Is there a big stature difference? I don't think so,” said Sutter. “We try and have him so he's not always on the ice against Hossa, Bickell, so he can maximize his skill set, not put the square peg in the round hole.”
Voynov, a man of few words, at least in English -- “I think he knows more tha he lets on,” said Scuderi -- analyzes the team’s approach this way:
“Play physical, simple in D-zone, quick in middle zone. Get our chances, score goals.”
Preferably game-winning goals. Simple.
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