EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- When the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012, they got lucky.
Not lucky in the sense that they didn't deserve their victories, but fortunate in that they remained relatively healthy. The Kings used the same six defensemen in all 20 of their playoff games, and had a 16-4 record.
It's been different this year. Because of injuries to veterans Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr, and some uneven play by their fill-ins, the Kings have used five different defense combinations through 16 games.
As they prepare for Saturday night's Game 3 of the Western Conference final against Chicago at Staples Center – the series is tied, 1-1 – the Kings know they will be able to count on big minutes from Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov. Increasingly, another young defenseman is looking more comfortable in a major role.
"You've got to adapt," Jake Muzzin said Thursday. "(Injuries) create new roles for some guys, but we're all professionals and if a situation comes up, we want to take advantage of it. It pushes us to be better."
Muzzin leads that charge. A year ago, in the conference finals against Chicago, he couldn't be counted on for more than about 15 minutes a game. The Kings thought highly of Muzzin, but as a 24-year-old rookie, he was prone to breakdowns and questionable decisions, and not quite ready to take on the opposition's top forwards.
That changed over the past 12 months, in part out of necessity.
Rob Scuderi, veteran leader of the 2012 defense, signed with Pittsburgh last summer. Mitchell and Regehr have dealt with periodic injuries. Slowly, surely, Muzzin settled into the top defensive pair with Doughty.
Muzzin averaged 19 minutes of ice time in the regular season, but has elevated his game significantly in the playoffs, at the time when the Kings need him most. Mitchell missed eight games because of a leg-muscle injury before he returned last week, and Regehr has missed the past eight games because of a knee injury.
Muzzin, who had five goals in 76 regular-season games, has four goals in 16 playoff games, including the go-ahead, power-play goal in the third period of Game 2 against Chicago on Wednesday.
"For Muzz, it's about the consistency," captain Dustin Brown said. "That's where he's made strides this year. He's always had that knack for making really good plays. Last year, just like everyone goes through it, learning to be at that level more often. That's probably the biggest stride he's made this year."
Muzzin has a plus-5 rating in these playoffs – he was minus-2 last year – which means he's not just improving offensively.
He and Doughty regularly draw the matchup of the opponent's top line, in this case the Chicago line centered by Jonathan Toews. Plus, in the absence of penalty-killers Mitchell and Regehr, Muzzin has also stepped into that high-pressure role.
"I was excited for the opportunity," Muzzin said. "Obviously you want to play in all situations. I got the opportunity and I just want to take advantage of it."
NOT QUITE YET
With two days between Games 2 and 3, the Kings did not practice, but Regehr might be able to rejoin his teammates in the next couple days. There is no known timetable for his return.
"If he could play on one leg, he would," Coach Darryl Sutter said. "I've seen him enough in his career – this is our third time together – that if there was a way to skate, he would be playing."
Meanwhile, the Blackhawks also stayed off the ice Thursday, then took an afternoon flight to California.
Not surprisingly, they played down their Game 2 loss, in which they led, 2-0, in the middle of the second period, then allowed six consecutive goals.
"We've been in some tough spots," defenseman Nick Leddy said. "Look at last year. We were down 2-1 to Boston, down 3-1 at Detroit, down 2-0 to St. Louis (this year), 2-2 in Minnesota series. It's just 1-1. There's a lot of hockey left in this series with two really good teams, and a lot to be decided."
KEEP IT QUIET
What happened during the second intermission of Game 2? The Kings scored a goal late in the second period to close their deficit to 2-1, but then came out with only the third five-goal period in franchise playoff history.
Did Sutter throw some chairs in the locker room? Peel the paint off the walls? According to him, he said nothing.
"They don't need some coach coming in there yelling and hollering," Sutter said. "I don't get that. That's not me. I don't do that. If there's something to be said, I think it's honest and the truth, and you get out. If it's something that helps them during the game, then that's it. It's not some great rallying cry between periods."
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