Youngsters earn a place at the grown-ups' table in Kings-Ducks series

Youngsters earn a place at the grown-ups' table in Kings-Ducks series
Kings teammates Tanner Pearson, left, and Tyler Toffoli, center, along with Ducks forward Devante Smith-Pelly have each played important roles in pushing their respective teams to the NHL Western Conference semifinals. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press; Ronald Martinez / Getty Images)

It was late in the third period, when legs can tire and skates can turn sluggish.

Just the right time for Tyler Toffoli to inject a little energy into the game.


Hopping off the bench, the young Kings forward scrambled across center ice, tracking down an opposing Duck and slamming him against the boards. Then he hurried back on defense and corralled a loose puck to start the breakout.

"I'm just doing whatever it takes," he said. "Trying to swing some momentum our way with hard work."

So far in the Western Conference semifinals — which resume with Game 3 at Staples Center on Thursday — the Kings and Ducks have looked to veterans such as Anze Kopitar and Teemu Selanne for big plays.

But the teams also have sought help from four players barely old enough to drink at the bar.

The Kings have paired Toffoli, 22, and Tanner Pearson, 21, with Jeff Carter on their second line. The Ducks have Emerson Etem and Devante Smith-Pelly, both 21, with center Nick Bonino.

Toffoli and Pearson recorded an assist each in their team's 3-1 victory on Monday night, a win that pushed the Kings to a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.

Smith-Pelly and Etem spent significant time on the ice, combining for four shots and 10 hits.

"It's the playoffs," Smith-Pelly said. "You've got to give everything every night."

The recent emergence of these young players is surprising if only because all four bounced between the NHL and the minor leagues during the regular season.

Called up from minor league Norfolk in early April, Smith-Pelly scored twice to help the Ducks clinch their first-round series against Dallas. In Game 1 against the Kings, he was robbed by goalie Jonathan Quick at point-blank range.

Etem had a shot flip over the crossbar that night, and for Game 2 the pair was moved ahead of veterans Daniel Winnik and Kyle Palmieri.

It was an arguable decision but Coach Bruce Boudreau liked their physical style in a tough matchup and was especially impressed with how Etem performed in the series opener, calling it "his best game since he got called up."

On Monday, Smith-Pelly helped out on both the power-play and penalty-killing units.

"It's good to know that Bruce trusts me in situations like that," he said earlier in the week. "It's pretty big for my confidence personally."


Toffoli and Pearson have made an even bigger impact for the Kings the last few weeks.

During the regular season, they were each sent down to Manchester and recalled three times. Those stints in the minor leagues helped them develop a rhythm together.

Toffoli has played in every postseason game; Pearson started the San Jose series on the bench before getting an opportunity to help the Kings forge a historic comeback.

At a critical point in Game 7, he carried the puck down the left side, spun and delivered a backhand pass to Toffoli, who was trailing the play. Toffoli neatly slipped a shot into the far corner of the net to give the Kings a 3-1 lead.

"Ty and I have a lot of chemistry," Pearson said. "I know where he's going to be on the ice."

They have recorded a combined four goals and six assists in nine games, boosting a Kings offense that has raised its average to more than three goals.

Still, the young guys know their place on the team's pecking order. And if they forget, the veterans will quickly remind them.

"When you make a mistake," Toffoli said, "they let you know about it."

Defenseman Drew Doughty praised Toffoli and Pearson but, when asked about them adding zip to the lineup, said: "They'd better."

Coach Darryl Sutter had a similar response to a question about the pair.

"I don't think it's about Tanner and Tyler," the coach said. "It's about everybody contributing."

Which is all the young guys really want.

After a season of fighting for ice time in the big leagues, Toffoli, Pearson, Etem and Smith-Pelly have relished the chance to help their teams on a regular basis.

Now on the big stage, they're looking to add a little something extra to every shift.

A hit along the boards. A charge down the ice. A goal.

"This is what you dream about," Smith-Pelly said. "Playing in the playoffs."