Los Angeles Kings: Conquering Their Lack of Playoff Experience?
April 19, 2010 1 Comment
EL SEGUNDO, CA — A lot of attention has been focused on the fact that the Los Angeles Kings are a young team that lacks playoffs experience, despite the presence of several grizzled veterans with playoff experience, including four with Stanley Cup rings.
The fact that none of the players wearing those rings are part of the young core that not only makes up the leadership group, but also are not among the team’s best players who will likely lead the team years from now, only encourages greater scrutiny.
That lack of post-season experience was apparent in Game 1 of the Kings’ Western Conference Quarterfinal playoff series against the Vancouver Canucks on April 15.
In front of a raucous, sell-out crowd at General Motors Place in Vancouver, the Kings got caught up in the excitement and their young players seemed to be a bit unnerved by the new and exciting experiences of the playoffs.
“We had a lot of guys playing in their first playoff game,” said veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi, who won the Stanley Cup in 2009 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s a different atmosphere. It’s really exciting.”
“There were a bunch of guys who played their first playoff game, including myself,” said center Anze Kopitar. “It was one of those things where you don’t know what to expect. Everybody was excited, but, at the same time, a little nervous. So it was mixed emotions.”
“There’s a lot of guys on this team who haven’t played in the playoffs,” said right wing Wayne Simmonds, who is also playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time. “It’s a huge difference between the regular season and the post-season.”
Scuderi had an explanation for what the younger players were experiencing.
“You’re not sure if you’re ninety percent nervous or ninety percent excited,” he said.
Whether you call it a case of nerves, over-excitement or jitters, the Kings failed to execute their game plan in Game 1 because of it.
“In Game 1, going into the third, we didn’t play as good and we didn’t know what to expect going into overtime,” Kopitar explained. “Nobody wanted to make a mistake. I felt we were just sitting back too much.”
The most glaring problems for the Kings in Game 1 were an acute lack of traffic in front of Canucks superstar goaltender Roberto Luongo, relatively few shots on goal and an inability to establish a forecheck.
“We actually had to get better at [net presence and shooting the puck], said head coach Terry Murray. “That’s something we reviewed—the lack of net presence, the shot mentality, just being a more effective hockey club on the forecheck, to get pucks, to get possession and to make some things happen on the offensive part of things through cycles and looking for your defenseman to get involved with shots.”
“There was a message to the team that we had to be a lot better, harder,” added Murray. “We had to be grittier in all those areas and compete at a higher level. I just felt that in the first game, our puck recovery was not good enough.”
“It looked like it was getting better [in Game 2] and we still have to be better at it.”
Indeed, the Kings were better in all of those areas in Game 2 on April 17 in Vancouver, a 3-2 overtime victory that evened the series with Game 3 scheduled for April 19 at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
A big reason for the improvement was that the Kings were able to shake off the jitters.
“I think, for a lot of guys, we got that out of the way in the first game,” Scuderi noted. “Last night, guys were able to calm down and play our brand of hockey.”
“I think we just tried to simplify quite a bit,” Scuderi elaborated. “I think, in the first game, we were trying to do what we did in the regular season. Although you want to try to play the same way and have the same habits, it is a different type of game out there [in the playoffs]. Last night, we simplified the game. We moved the puck up and let our forwards do what they do best, which is play down low in the [attacking] zone.”
Simmonds and Kopitar were on the same page with Scuderi.
“To get that first game out of the way was huge for us,” said Simmonds. “We calmed down a lot going into that second game. We were really prepared.”
“We got used to it in Game 2,” said Kopitar. “We went into the third period tied, 2-2. We just kept going after it. We had some scoring chances. In Game 1, we were just sitting back, hoping not to lose. In Game 2, we kept going after it. We were making plays and it paid off.”
“We played with a lot more confidence and turned that into a win.”
The Kings now realize that, not only can they play with the Canucks, but they can beat them and win the series.
“We showed our character,” Kopitar emphasized. “As we were making plays, I think everybody was more comfortable on the ice, too. There’s definitely a sense that we can beat them. We’re going into each and every game with the mindset that we’re going to win the game.”
To continue to be successful, the Kings believe that they only need focus on their own game.
“Playoff hockey is a little more intense and tighter,” said Kopitar. “But we’re just going to go out and play. We know it’s about us and we’ve showed it. We’ve got to play our own game and force them to make mistakes and then capitalize on them or take penalties, as they did.”
“We just have to keep on going, looking at ourselves, and go from there,” added Kopitar.
“We’ve got to keep going with the same style of play we had last game,” Simmonds stressed. “We were good down low, we got a lot of pucks deep, behind their defense. By the end of that game, we had worn them down quite a bit. If we stick to that game plan, we’ll be fine.”
Speaking of Simmonds…
Simmonds moved up to the first line with Kopitar and left wing Ryan Smyth in Game 2 and he made an immediate, positive impact.
Grit and physical play was the prescription for that line after Game 1 and Simmonds delivered just what the doctor ordered.
“I thought his game was really good, especially on the forecheck,” said Kopitar. “He was really physical and he was winning the puck battles. There’s not a whole lot of space out there, but he was pulling out pucks and making it easier for Smyttie and I to get the cycle game going.”
“I thought Simmonds did a good job on that line,” said Murray. “He showed that grit that he’s played with for most of the year. Whenever he’s had the opportunity to play with Kopitar, he’s responded.”
Simmonds said that he was just doing what he has always tried to do.
“That’s my game,” he explained. “I feel if I’m not playing physical, then I’m not playing my best. When I play with [Kopitar and Smyth], all my role is, really, is to go out there and loosen pucks up for those guys and try to create space.”
“I got a goal last night just by going to the net,” he added. “Smyttie and Kopi are great players. They make things happen. It’s pretty much just get the puck in their hands and work hard.”
Simmonds appears to be well-suited for the higher intensity and heavier physical play in post-season play.
“It’s a lot more intense than the regular season,” he said. “Every game is pretty much do or die. Everyone’s fighting for their lives out there. I think the intensity level is way different from the regular season. It took me a couple of minutes in the first game to adjust, but I’m dealing well with it now.”
“I can thrive under these conditions. That’s the type of player I am. I like to be a hard-nosed, physical player and get into the corners. That’s where the majority of playoff games are played—down low.”
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