Jeff Carter Is All Grown Up

There is something uniquely wonderful about watching an athlete you've followed since day one grow into his own over the years. You see a player develop, improve on his weaknesses, enhance his strengths and mature into a well-rounded performer both offensively and defensively, and you can't help but smile.

That is exactly the feeling I get watching Jeff Carter have huge game after huge game for the Los Angeles Kings in these Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last night, in L.A.'s 3-0 victory against the New York Rangers in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final to take a commanding 3-0 series lead, Carter's total package was on full display. He scored the opening goal of the game with less than a second remaining in the first period on a great pass from Justin Williams, silencing Madison Square Garden while remarkably giving the Kings, already up 2-0 in the series following back-to-back overtime wins in Games 1 and 2, their first lead in regulation of the series. It was Carter's 10th goal and 24th point of this postseason in the 24 games played thus far.

He then camped himself in front of the net on the power play to screen Henrik Lundqvist as Jake Muzzin's point shot deflected off a Ranger and in to put the Kings up 2-0.

Ask just about any Philadelphia Flyers fan if they ever imagined Jeff Carter becoming a playoff hero and physical net presence before the offseason that reshaped the Orange and Black and you'd probably get laughed right out of the building.

You see, Jeff Carter was a very good player for the Flyers, an all-star player and Olympic alternate, in fact. He scored at least 23 goals in every season but one as Flyer, topping out at 46 and becoming the team's best goal-scorer. He could always score. But when the playoffs rolled around, he always seemed to come up just a little bit short. He's more known for missing a wide-open net than toughing it out on two broken feet. Toughness was not his calling card, fair or not.

And while Carter was a better defensive player than he was given credit for during his Philadelphia days, you would never mistake him for a Selke winner. He rarely got himself to the dirty areas in front of the net, was not known for throwing around his big frame, and ultimately was thought of as good and talented but soft.

Those sentiments were only reinforced when he sulked his way through 39 injury-filled games as a Blue Jacket that precipitated a trade to Kings.

The rest, as they say, is history, as Carter helped the Kings to the Stanley Cup in 2012.

But now, at 29, Carter has taken his game to another level. There are no longer questions about toughness, accusations of choking, or even questions about his strength. Carter is L.A.'s second-best scorer, trailing only Anze Kopitar in goals and assists this season, and he's kept that up this postseason, trailing only Kopitar in posteason points and trade-deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik in playoff goals.

More impressively, Carter has become a complete player, transforming himself into "no-teeth, back-checking, board-working, big-goal-scoring Jeff Carter," as my friend Matt texted me last night. With so much experience and so many playoff games behind him, not to mention seeing firsthand what it takes to hoist the Cup, Carter has turned every single one of his weaknesses into a strength. He is a beast on the boards, cycling the puck, winning battles and providing support for his teammates. He plants himself in front of the net, taking the punishment that comes with it, to set screens and seek out deflections. He wins face-offs and kills penalties, skates his ass off to back-check with abandon — and oh yeah, he can still shoot and score with the best of them.

During his time in Philadelphia, there were insane expectations and big-time questions about maturity, discipline and work, fair or unfair. Now, as he approaches his 30th birthday at the turn of the next new year, Carter has the hunger to be great, and he's put in the work to become  an all-around force.

Seeing how far he's come has truly been a pleasure, even if it brings up feelings of what could have been for my favorite hockey team. We've watched him grow over the years, and now, just one victory away from his second Stanley Cup, Jeff Carter is all grown up.

He's a champion. He's an all-star. He's an Olympian. And he's also a guy willing to put in the work and do the dirty work that truly separates the talented from the championship stars.

Yes, Jeff Carter is all grown up, and he's as indispensable as just about anyone for the Los Angeles Kings, as he showed once again last night.

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