Kings defenseman Slava Voynov likes to go on the offense
Just watch Slava Voynov drift toward the goal, holding the puck on his stick, waiting.
There hasn’t been much room to shoot in these playoffs, not with Voynov and the Kings facing a couple of teams, the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks, that like to clog the middle.
“You need time,” he said. “Try to find a good time, a good spot.”
Voynov, 23, has found enough of those moments to score four goals in the postseason, tied for best among NHL defensemen. His offensive output has helped the Kings gain a 3-2 lead over San Jose in a Western Conference semifinal series.
“For whatever reason, he finds those corners,” Sharks center Joe Thornton said. “And he’s very good at it.”
Heading into Game 6 on Sunday evening, Voynov struggled to explain his success, partly because English is still fairly new to him. Also because he tends to be quiet.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just shoot through.”
If patience is part of the equation, that would make sense for a young man who came over from Russia in 2008.
As a boy in Chelyabinsk, just east of the Ural Mountains, he watched NHL games on television with his father, trying to copy what he saw on the screen.
“All my life I want to play in the NHL,” he said. “I think my life is here. I want to play here.”
First, though, he had to prove himself in the Russian Super League. The Kings selected him in the second round of the 2008 entry draft and sent him to their minor league affiliate in Manchester, N.H.
“It was tough for me,” Voynov said. “When I come to America, I think I need one or two years in the minors.”
Two seasons became three, so many nights playing in small rinks, riding a bus to the next city. There were second thoughts along the way, his family and agent encouraging him to stick with it.
Culture shock and a new language did not help. Team officials in Manchester found a woman to translate and teach him English. The Kings’ general manager, Dean Lombardi, suggested that he start with the basics.
“He told me first you need to learn hockey terms,” Voynov said. “I know all hockey terms.”
His big break came in 2011, when he was called up as an injury replacement, then made a spot for himself on the roster with the arrival of Darryl Sutter as coach.
His maturation allowed the Kings to trade veteran defenseman Jack Johnson for a goal-scorer, Jeff Carter, whose addition proved crucial to last season’s Stanley Cup run. From the start, goalie Jonathan Quick recognized Voynov’s talent, a certain poise and a sense for being in the right position.
“He can take a hit and still make the play,” Quick said. “Great skater. Knows how we’re supposed to play and knows how the other team wants to play and knows how to take away quality chances.”
While Quick admired Voynov’s defensive acumen, fans appreciated his knack for contributing at the other end of the ice.
Unlike fellow defenseman Drew Doughty, known for jumping in and leading a rush, Voynov tends to follow just behind, setting up inside the blue line where he can take aim.
Last season, he scored nine goals. In this compacted regular season, he had six.
“He’s got a great shot,” defenseman Rob Scuderi said. “He always finds a way to get it through.”
Over the last few weeks, Voynov’s shooting percentage has jumped to 25% with a hot streak that began May 4 against the St. Louis Blues. That night, he collected a loose puck in the faceoff circle and pinpointed a shot to the far corner.
Four nights later, he joined the rush to score in overtime. Then came two goals against the Sharks, a laser slapshot in Game 1 and a wrist shot in Game 5.
Shooting on net can be dangerous for a defenseman. If the puck gets blocked early in its flight, it can rebound toward center ice and start a mad scramble.
“When you are the last guy on defense,” Voynov said, “then there is a breakaway against Quickie.”
The risk runs especially high against a team such as San Jose which, as Sutter notes, has players who “block a lot of shots on the rush and in coverage. You’ve got to sort of find the puck to the goalie.”
So the Kings have relied heavily on Voynov in the playoffs, keeping him on the ice more than 21 minutes per game. He has responded with three game winners and a plus-minus rating of plus-eight, best on the team.
Just watch him get the puck in the offensive zone and scan the jumble of bodies in front of the net, searching for any small opening.
“Sometimes I am trying to make a pass,” he said. “But I also like to shoot.”
That is why he waits.
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