It wouldn’t be quite accurate to say that Kings defenseman Alec Martinez was a regular resident of Darryl Sutter’s doghouse early this season.
Martinez would have needed a long elevator ride up from the sub-basement to reach the doghouse, so low had he dropped in the Kings coach’s estimation and on the team’s depth chart.
He didn’t dress for the first three games of the season or the last seven games in October, for reasons no one could pinpoint. He’s not the most physical player, but he has a good shot, reads the game well and is smart positionally. But he couldn’t keep a regular spot in the lineup until February, after he recovered from an upper-body injury.
That all seemed like ancient history Monday, after Martinez scored a goal against the Ducks for the second consecutive playoff game and provided a steady defensive effort in the 3-1 victory that gave the Kings a 2-0 series lead at the noisy but quick-to-empty Honda Center.
“As a player everyone has ups and downs and I guess I learned from that experience, but I don’t dwell on it,” Martinez said of his early-season exile.
His biggest lesson from that time, he said, “was just battling through adversity. But it’s not about me. It’s about the team, and the team has been playing well. We’ve just got to keep it going.”
Without defensemen Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr, who are sidelined by injuries, every Kings defender who can stand upright has had to play pressure minutes and give a bit more than he has before. Maybe more than any of them knew they could give.
Martinez, paired on Monday with veteran Matt Greene, exemplified that effort in his 18 minutes 21 seconds on the ice.
In addition to his goal, he was credited with three hits and four of the Kings’ eight blocked shots, and he took on considerable penalty-killing duty.
Without Mitchell and Regehr, who are regular penalty killers, Martinez stepped in to play 2:03 while the Kings were shorthanded. He acquitted himself well, and that was appreciated by his teammates.
“He’s doing a good job with that. I couldn’t be more happy for him,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “And we need him to continue to play like this if we want to go far in the playoffs.”
Martinez, 26, is one of the glue players in the Kings’ locker room and in their game plan. He brings to the room a wry sense of humor that amuses his teammates. He brings to the ice a wicked shot that is a fine offensive weapon, like the one he took from above the left circle that deflected off Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg and past Jonas Hiller at 12:07 of the first period Monday for the decisive goal.
“He’s getting pucks through to the net,” Doughty said. “The other night he scored a great goal. Tonight it’s a lucky bounce, but obviously it’s a huge goal, too.”
It extended the Kings’ postseason winning streak to six, the last two against a Ducks team the Kings managed to beat only once during the regular season. Even Martinez couldn’t explain why the Kings have turned that around.
“A few games we weren’t too happy with our team game and they’re a heck of a hockey club,” he said. “If you’re not playing at the top of your game, these guys are going to get the best of you. I don’t really know the difference.”
The change is likely more mental than strategic. The mental strength the Kings showed in overcoming San Jose’s 3-0 series lead in the first round seems to have lasted and become as much a part of their game as their strong forecheck and physical play.
“We weren’t too happy with the first three games of the playoffs and I think we’ve slowly gotten better every game,” Martinez said.
“There’s a few things that we need to clean up here and there but I think just playing more of a team game and playing our game has been the difference.”
Martinez couldn’t escape the crowded visitors’ locker room without being asked whether he felt a “special vibe” because Monday was Cinco de Mayo and, after all, his last name suggests that he would be celebrating the holiday. It’s a common assumption that he has faced.
“No, I’m Spanish,” said Martinez, who was born in Michigan and is descended from a grandfather who was from Spain, a Union Army Civil War soldier, and a many-times great-grandfather who founded the town of Dedham, Mass.
People should know that by now, since he is long out of the doghouse and in the spotlight.