Matt Greene knocks T.J. Galiardi to the ice in front of goalie Jonathan quick… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
Matt Greene's return has increased the Kings' physicality and lifted their collective mood, and there's no saying which is more vital to a team that has clawed its way into position to clinch its second straight tense, punishing playoff series on Sunday.
Greene, an alternate captain and stalwart defensive force in the Kings' Stanley Cup run a year ago, missed most of the regular season after undergoing back surgery. His absence and Willie Mitchell's knee injury created gaping holes in the defense corps, and General Manager Dean Lombardi did well to fill in by acquiring Keaton Ellerby and Robyn Regehr at minimal cost.
But neither was Greene, who brings a rugged fearlessness to the ice and a dry wit behind the scenes. The Kings got by without him but got surer and deeper with him the last two games, especially in the 3-0 victory Thursday that gave them a 3-2 series lead over the San Jose Sharks in the teams' Western Conference semifinal.
They can advance to the West final by winning Sunday's game, which will start at 5 p.m. at HP Pavilion in San Jose. A seventh game, if necessary, would be played Tuesday at Staples Center.
To end the pattern of the home team winning each game, the Kings on Sunday will have to be as unrelenting as they were on Thursday, when Greene led by word and by deed.
"He's a big voice in the locker room and when he was missing this year, you could really feel it in the atmosphere of the dressing room," said defenseman Rob Scuderi, who partnered with Greene on Thursday on a penalty-killing unit that was three for three and has negated 16 of 17 disadvantages at home during the playoffs.
"So it's not something that is necessarily needed to play well, but it lightens the atmosphere and it keeps things loose, which is a big part of a season in the playoffs. It can't be serious all the time."
Greene, who missed the regular-season finale and the first nine playoff games because of a lower-body injury, delivered hits early and often on Thursday. As usual, his teammates followed his lead. They maintained that bruising pace and were strong in the fundamentals that can be the difference when teams know each other well and are closely matched.
After playing 14 minutes and eight seconds Tuesday in his first game back, Greene played 13 minutes and 17 seconds Thursday, including 2:42 while the Kings were short-handed. He was credited with four hits and one blocked shot. He deserves credit for much more.
"The things that you guys don't see — the leadership in the dressing room, that powerful voice — I think all year we missed him," forward Mike Richards said Friday.
"On the ice, too, just how physical he plays and how hard he is to play against. Even before we got Regehr, too, I think that's kind of what we were lacking on the back end. We have some skilled guys, guys that move the puck well, but I don't think you can replace someone who plays that physical and how hard both of those guys are to play against, and Matt coming back is a big boost for us.
"I think you can just see how different of a team we are when he's in the lineup to set the tone physically."
That physicality has taken its toll, and Coach Darryl Sutter used the extra day before Game 6 to give players time to rest their bumps and bruises. Sutter said center Jarret Stoll, who suffered a concussion in Game 1 against the Sharks, skated for about 15 minutes and will be evaluated Saturday. "There's still a long ways to go," Sutter said of Stoll, a key penalty killer and faceoff specialist.
Greene wasn't among the few players made available to the media on Friday but he was a hot topic of conversation. "He's just a presence, is the best way I can describe it," Scuderi said.
Sutter said having Greene, Scuderi and Regehr balances the defense pairs and ensures one rugged defenseman will be on the ice at all times. "It gives you a settled-down experience even though they're different types," Sutter said. "But it clearly gives you some composure in your own zone and composure with the puck."
Greene brings some laughs, too, though the usually serious Scuderi insisted otherwise. "I don't think he's particularly funny, no," Scuderi said with a deadpan delivery. "I'm hilarious."
Now, that's funny. The Kings just want to have the last laugh.