EL SEGUNDO — The locker room at the Toyota Sports Center was crowded with reporters and cameramen Monday morning, prompting staff members to cover the Kings' logo that centers the room with a large black rug and keep the unsanitary foot prints off their crown jewel.
As large groups of media huddled around the likes of Jarret Stoll, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick, rookie defenseman Alec Martinez slipped in relatively unnoticed, plopped down in the corner of the room and began untying his skates.
Martinez received plenty of attention in his first playoff appearance last week, but it wasn’t they type of debut he envisioned while growing up a Detroit Red Wings fan in Rochester, Mich. With about five minutes remaining in the first overtime against the San Jose Sharks, Martinez lost control of the puck after receiving a pass in cramped quarters, lost his footing and couldn’t get back on defense in time to prevent Joe Pavelski's winning goal.
It was a painful ending to an otherwise solid outing, but Martinez knew there was plenty of time for redemption. He gained that in Game 2, helping the defense combine on a 4-0 shutout that evened the series, 1-1, heading into Game 3 on Tuesday night at Staples Center.
“It was obviously a huge win for us,” Martinez said. “Coming back home with a split there. I thought we did a lot of good things both games. Unfortunately, it didn’t bounce our way the first game, but I think we did a real good job sticking to what we’re good at doing and played pretty well defensively.”
Martinez was recalled from Manchester just before Thanksgiving to fill in for fellow blue-liner Willie Mitchell, who was out because of a broken hand. Martinez scored a power-play goal in his first game with the Kings, a 4-1 loss in Montreal, then cemented a spot on the roster four games later with a goal and an assist in a 3-2 overtime victory against the visiting Red Wings.
Kings coach Terry Murray said Martinez has been back in the flow since the middle of the first playoff game Thursday.
“He really settled in to show us the kind of game he has been giving us all year long,” Murray said. “He was really good in Game 2.”
Kings rookie forward Kyle Clifford didn’t receive a lot of attention during the regular season either, unless you’re a fan of fight replays. Clifford created an entire video library by the All-Star break.
But in one of the great transformation stories in the NHL this season, Clifford has maturated into a bona fide scoring threat. He notched his first playoff goal in Game 2, stuffing back a rebound that gave the Kings a four-goal lead in the third period and sent a bunch of dejected San Jose fans heading for the exits.
He hasn’t abandoned his willingness to drop the gloves and stand up for the team either. After Stoll checked San Jose defenseman Ian White into the boards late in the first period of Game 1, knocking White from the game with an injury and earning Stoll on a one-game suspension for Game 2, it was Clifford who faced the music on the ensuing face off.
Despite giving up 30 pounds and with fresh stitch marks still showing below his discolored left eye from a fight five days earlier against Sheldon Brookbank of the Ducks, Clifford took on Sharks enforcer Ben Eager in a brief slugfest, which coincided with a change in momentum in the series.
“There has been no nervous play from Clifford at all.” Murray said. “This kid’s unbelievable when it comes to that type of attitude, as far as, ‘I can do this. I’ve kind of been there before in my own mind, so there’s no change in my game,’ and it clearly shows.”
Clifford, who was eligible to return to his junior team this season but won his way onto the Kings’ roster during a franchise-best 12-3-0 start, said the biggest difference between the playoffs and regular season is the intensity level and familiarity teams gain with the opponent as the series unfolds.
“Everybody’s on the same page with your team and their team,” he said. “You get to know a team’s tendencies. You know who’s going to hit you, and who’s going to just peel off.”
Doughty is in only the second playoff series of his career, but the Kings' defenseman has already established himself as a player who can take his game to another level during the postseason, scoring five goals and 11 points in eight career playoff games.
Doughty said the key for those getting their first playoff experience is to keep the game simple and not force plays that aren't there.
“A playoff series is tough and they're a lot of fun but there’s a lot of pressure and a lot of nerves at the same time,” he said. “You’ve just got to make sure you keep things simple. The faster you move the puck, the easier you move it, a lot simpler the game is for you.”