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Los Angeles Kings’ last line of defense is shifting in playoffs

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During last season’s run to the Stanley Cup, the Kings enjoyed an unusual edge.

With no major injuries on the back end, and no pressing strategic concerns, they relied on the same six defensemen, in consistent pairings, throughout the playoffs.

“You just have a feel for what the other person is going to do and when they’re going to do it,” veteran Rob Scuderi said. “It’s not a luxury that every team gets.”

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This postseason is a different story.

When the Kings take the ice against the San Jose Sharks in the fourth game of the Western Conference semifinals Tuesday night, Scuderi and his defensive teammates know they might be mixed and matched in different combinations.

Injuries and other considerations have forced the coaching staff to use seven skaters and make adjustments, sometimes on the fly.

“It’s been a work in progress,” assistant John Stevens said. “The group has gotten better as we’ve moved along, but there certainly are some challenges to get the level of play you want.”

Defense is key to the team’s success.

At the start of this week, the Kings led the NHL postseason statistics with a 1.67 goals-against average. During the 2011-12 playoffs, that number was even stingier at 1.50.

A core of veterans — Scuderi, Drew Doughty, Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell — led the way to the Cup. The team had pairings that worked and there were no major injuries to disrupt the pattern. With no seven-game series, players had chances to rest along the way.

Keaton Ellerby, who played for the Florida Panthers last season, noticed the advantage from afar.

“I think they went the whole playoffs without switching pairs,” said Ellerby, who joined the Kings by way of a trade in early February. “That definitely helps.”

Ellerby knew he would not have the same opportunity with his new team because this season began with Mitchell and Greene sidelined by major injuries.

Jake Muzzin, who spent last season in the minors, joined the rotation and in April the Kings acquired veteran Robyn Regehr in a trade with the Buffalo Sabres.

The NHL lockout added further complication. A compacted schedule afforded less time for practice and less time for new pairs to develop chemistry.

That put more emphasis on everyone playing within the team’s defensive system and knowing the details.

“Read on the rush, trigger points, pressure, where to be in the zone for your partner, positioning, stick position, read against the other team, faceoff readiness,” Stevens said. “It just never stops.”

The assistant and his defensemen discuss such matters at video sessions, on team flights and during games, the coaches saying: “There’s a constant conversation.”

On the ice, the adjustments come in all sizes.

Doughty and Slava Voynov tend to be offense-minded, while Scuderi and Ellerby stay at home. They all must keep these tendencies in mind.

Remembering whether your partner is right- or left-handed can be just as crucial in that split-second when you try to thread a pass through traffic, Alec Martinez said. And Ellerby must adapt to playing on the opposite coast. The game is more defensive and physical in the Western Conference, he said.

The Kings endured tenacious forechecking against the St. Louis Blues and have contended with big bodies such as Joe Thornton and Brent Burns in this round.

“It’s about getting back quicker for pucks because you know there’s always a big guy on your tail getting ready to crush you,” Ellerby said. “You have to make a quick play and get the puck out of your own end.”

At this point, the Kings are trying to settle their pairings — Doughty and Regehr have become a notably consistent duo — though game-time circumstances occasionally throw a wrench into those plans.

“If the team’s not creating anything offensively or you’re looking to shut the game down, you might move guys around,” Stevens said. “If one guy’s really going, you might move him around.”

The defensemen would like to believe they know each other well enough — some have mutual histories dating back to the minors — to feel comfortable in any combination.

Truth is, they have no choice.

“It’s part of the game — forward lines get jumbled and so do we,” Martinez said. “The bottom line is, you need to be able to play with everybody.”

david.wharton@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesWharton


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