AP Sports Writer
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) -- Less than three minutes into Game 5, Matt Greene spotted TJ Galiardi loitering in front of the Los Angeles Kings' net. Greene flattened the agitating San Jose forward with a nasty hit, sending Galiardi's stick flying as he fell.
There's nothing fancy about the way Greene plays hockey, and that's why the veteran defenseman fits perfectly with the no-nonsense Stanley Cup champions. In a series increasingly pitting the Sharks' flash against the Kings' smash, Greene and fellow hard-hitting defensemen Robyn Regehr and Rob Scuderi are hanging in with San Jose's formidable offensive talent -- and occasionally crushing it.
Greene's return to the Los Angeles lineup has coincided with a return to form by the Kings, who struggled for long stretches of the first four games, yet still earned a chance to close out the Sharks in Game 6 on Sunday night.
"We've got to be a physical team if we're going to win," Greene said. "That's the plan, just to bring it up there to San Jose."
After missing the first nine games of the playoffs and sitting nearly the entire regular season with a back injury, Greene came back for Game 4 and immediately started hitting people. After a strong finish to their 2-1 loss in Game 4, the Kings have shut out the Sharks for the last 96 minutes, moving to the brink of a second straight trip to the Western Conference finals.
Game 5 was Los Angeles' best effort of the series, according to coach Darryl Sutter, who doesn't exactly dole out compliments haphazardly. The Kings agreed, and star goalie Jonathan Quick led a chorus of compliments toward Los Angeles' playoff-tested defense.
"The start of the game was a big focus for us, and I think Greenie set the tempo with that, and we just followed in his footsteps," Mike Richards said Friday after a team meeting at the Kings' training complex. "Matt coming back is a big boost for us. I think you can just see how different of a team we are with him in the lineup just setting the tone physically."
Los Angeles can't match the Sharks' top-end talent or entertainment value, but the champs won the pivotal Game 5 on Thursday night with a fundamentally sound effort led by that sturdy defense. San Jose has controlled long stretches of the series, and Los Angeles has been a horrible road team since March, but the Kings' experience and tenacity has earned them two shots to finish off the Sharks.
"We know they're going to come out and throw everything at us," Kings forward Trevor Lewis said. "If we come out with another strong start, we'll have a good chance."
San Jose arguably outplayed the Kings in the first period of every game in this series until Game 5, and Greene was a major reason for the change.
In the opening minutes, he landed big hits on Galiardi and James Sheppard, and the Kings followed his lead with a physical, grinding effort that negated the Sharks' speed and skill. Los Angeles also raised its game on faceoffs, winning more than 50 percent for the first time in a series dominated by Joe Thornton in the circle.
"You've got to win some faceoffs, and it's not easy to win against (Thornton)," Sutter said. "Our percentages went up, and it does manifest in how much time you have the puck."
Greene hurt his back moments after the Kings raised their only Stanley Cup banner in their season opener against Chicago. He returned late in the regular season, but quickly got yanked from the lineup again when he didn't appear fully healed.
"It's been great having Greenie back," Scuderi said. "He brings a lot of experience, certainly with last year. ... He's a big voice in the locker room, and when he was missing this year, you could really feel it in the atmosphere of the dressing room."
The Kings acquired Regehr late in the regular season to replace the toughness lost with long-term injuries for Greene and Willie Mitchell, who never played this season. With Greene, Regehr and Scuderi in the lineup, the Kings finally have three balanced defensive pairings, putting those three bruisers alongside puck-moving specialists Drew Doughty, Slava Voynov, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez, recently a healthy scratch.
"All year we missed (Greene), how physical he plays, how hard he is to play against," Richards said. "Even before we got Regehr, I think that's what we lacked in the back end. We had some skilled guys, guys that move the puck well, but I don't think they can replace somebody who plays that physical, and how hard both of those guys are to play against."