VIDEO INTERVIEWS: Includes video interviews with Los Angeles Kings Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Matt Greene, Jarret Stoll, and head coach Darryl Sutter.
EL SEGUNDO, CA — The Los Angeles Kings are heading into Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals against the San Jose Sharks on May 14 (7:00 PM PDT, Staples Center) knowing that were not at the top of their game in the first round of the playoffs against the St. Louis Blues. To be sure, the Kings have not looked much like the team that won the 2012 Stanley Cup Championship.
“I don’t know if we’ve played like that yet,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “I think we still have a long way to go. We were OK in the St. Louis series. We weren’t great. We didn’t play to the best of our abilities, so we’ve got a lot to work on, and we’ve got to start doing it in this series.”
“Our defensive zone coverage, composure with the puck under fast, quick pressure, heavy pressure, like we saw in the first round, I don’t think we handled it too well,” said center Jarret Stoll. “We need to be a lot better in that area. We relied on our goaltender too much. He was great, he was awesome for us, but we need to be better in that area, and just bearing down, offensively. We had some chances that went by. We scored some timely goals, but I think we could’ve put more pucks in the net, and we didn’t.”
“Our power play, face-offs—there’s a lot of things we can work on,” added Stoll.”
Indeed, face-offs were an issue in the first round, as the Blues dominated the face-off circle, winning 56.1 percent of the draws.
Stoll has been the Kings’ best face-off man in recent seasons, but has a 45.8 percent rating in the playoffs so far, slightly under the team rating of 47.1 percent, which is good for 14th out of the 16 teams that made the playoffs this season.
The Kings will have to figure out how to turn that around against the number two face-off team in the post-season.
“It just seems like it’s working for them [in the face-off circle],” said center Anze Kopitar. “I think our team has been improving in the face-off circle, game-by-game now. We’ve got to bring our best, because you want to have position as much as you can.”
“All of their [centers] take draws, are comfortable taking draws, and they’ve taken a lot of them over the course of their careers,” Stoll noted. “[Joe] Pavelski, [Logan] Couture, [Joe] Thornton, even [Scott] Gomez—they’re all good. They’re all strong on their sticks, they all care. They want to win the draws. Sometimes, that’s half the battle, depending on who you’re going up against.”
“It’s an important piece of the game—special teams face-offs, defensive zone draws, all those things,” Stoll added.
The Kings will be looking to get their patented forecheck/puck possession game going against the Sharks, something they failed to do against the Blues.
“I think we’ll play a more puck possession game than we did [against St. Louis], and manage the puck better, especially against that team,” said Kopitar. “Especially, against that team—they have a lot of skill—you want to manage the puck better, and not have too many turnovers.”
More important will be how the Kings play without the puck, especially on the defensive side of the game.
“It gets harder every round,” said winger and team captain Dustin Brown. “We didn’t give up many goals [in the first round], but we’ve got to limit our scoring chance against.”
With three goals and five assists for eight points in four playoff games this season, Couture will garner special attention, but then the Kings have to worry about Pavelski (four goals and four assists), Thornton (goal, five assists, and Patrick Marleau (four goals, one assist).
“There’s a lot of guys on that team that we’ve got to be aware of,” said defenseman Matt Greene. “They’ve got a lot of highly-skilled guys. We’ve got to slow them down a little bit. We just have to try to limit their chances as much as possible.”
“There’s not just [Couture],” Stoll noted. “There’s five or six guys on that team who we’ve got to neutralize, shut down, get in their faces, and make it an uncomfortable game for them. That’s what playoffs are all about. Make it uncomfortable, and take away time and space. It’s getting people out of their comfort zone.”
“Anybody that’s still playing is a good team,” Stoll added. “They’ve got threats. It doesn’t matter who you’re playing. You’ve just got to take a look at their lineup, and see what they’ve got. We all know what they’re about, and they know what we’re about. It’s just a matter of neutralizing some of their guys, being disciplined, staying out of the box, and executing our game plan.”
Moving Brett Burns to a forward position from defenseman has worked wonders for the Sharks this season, and he adds a wrinkle to the mix that the Kings will need to address.
“He’s a big body,” Greene noted. “Skates well, moves well, and thinks the game well. He’s a good player to be able to play both positions. It’s going to be a big challenge for our guys to contain him.”
“They’re balanced up front,” said Sutter. “They’ve moved guys around. Burns really complemented Joe [Thornton], Patrick and Couture. Then you go to Pavelski, [Tommy] Wingels, and with [Raffi] Torres, it gives them good balance on their lines. That has impacted their team. It has made them play more of a straight line game.”
Discipline will also be a key to the series, as the Sharks have the second-ranked power play in the post-season, with a 29.2 percent rating, while the Kings are 12th, with a 13.3 percent rating.
In other words, the Kings must stay out of the penalty box, and their power play must improve.
“We can’t be in the penalty box against this team,” said Stoll. “We know that. We saw how many power plays they got, and how many power plays Vancouver got in the first round. [The Sharks] capitalized on it. They had a good power play. They scored some goals. That’s a big key.”
“We need our power play to be better,” said Brown. “Later in the [first round], it wasn’t nearly as good. Special teams are huge.”
Although the Sharks are not the physical, defensive-minded team that the Blues are, the Kings are expecting the Sharks to play a physical style.
“I’m sure it will be [physical], but I don’t think other teams can do it as well as St. Louis,” Doughty noted. “They’re a very similar team to us, and they know how to play against us. They were tough. They neutralized our forecheck. That’s how we create a lot of our opportunities—going in hard, banging some bodies, create a turnover, and get a shot on net.”
On the other hand, Stoll expects a similar level of physical play from the Sharks.
“It’s going to be physical again,” said Stoll. “These are two teams that don’t like each other. We have a good little rivalry within our division. It’s going to be fun. They’re always fun games with San Jose. We’ve seen that the last three or four years that I’ve been here. This is my fifth year [with the Kings]. It’s a great rivalry. I don’t expect a let up at all from round one to round two in the physical play, the speed, [or] the intensity of the game.”
“They’ve got the capability, with a couple of their lines, to have that type of pressure,” said Brown. “They move the puck pretty well, and their chemistry is going pretty well right now. It’s just a matter of being hard on them. Their top players are playing at a high level. You’ve got to make it difficult for those guys to get scoring chances. That’s the only way to slow them down, to make it difficult for them, and a big part of that is playing in their defensive zone.”
Indeed, if the Kings want to get their forecheck going, they must improve their defensive zone play, and clean up their breakout plays so they can generate speed through the neutral zone, allowing them to get in on the Sharks defensemen and create turnovers.
“It comes down to what we’re going to do, as a group,” said defenseman Rob Scuderi. “Some teams do some things that give everyone problems, but there’s always another way through it. It’s up to us, as players, and certainly, the coaches to evaluate it, and let us know how to execute within the game plan, whether it’s skate the puck a bit more, if the sit back, or making a quick first pass if they’re aggressive.”
“It’s up to us to make those adjustments, and find a way through, so we can play in the offensive zone,” added Scuderi.
Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi was outstanding all season long, and was named as a finalist for the Vezina Trophy, awarded annually to the league’s top goaltender.
Niemi was outstanding in the first round against the Vancouver Canucks, with a 4-0 record, a 1.86 goals-against average, and a .937 save percentage—outstanding numbers.
But his counterpart, Kings netminder Jonathan Quick, was even better in the first round, posting a 4-2 record, with a 1.58 GAA, a .944 save percentage, and one shutout.
The Kings are likely going to have to get more bodies and pucks to the front of the net if they want to get past Niemi and the Sharks.
“Their constant all year has been their goaltending,” Sutter noted. “He’s been really good for them.”
“He’s played well all year,” said Brown. “Being nominated for the Vezina is proof of that. He’s played well against us. Against a guy like that, again, it’s making it hard on him, making it hard for him to see the puck.”
“That’s something we can get a lot better at than we [were] in the first series,” added Brown. “[Blues goaltender Brian] Elliott saw a lot of the pucks we threw at him. If you want to score goals at this time of year, it’s about getting ugly ones, and a lot of that is just rebounds.”
“The thing we have to realize about Niemi is that he’s never out of the play. He always battles. We have to bear down on our scoring chances if we want to get’em.”
Home Ice Advantage? Big Deal
Against the Sharks, the Kings have home ice advantage in a playoff series for the first time since 1992, when they were eliminated by the Edmonton Oilers in six games.
“We’ve got home ice,” said Stoll. “Our goal is to win Game 1, like it is for every playoff series. That’s all we really care about doing. That’s all we’re worried about for tomorrow night.”
“San Jose is going to be a big challenge for us,” added Stoll. “Games 1 and 2 are in our building. It’s nice to have home ice [advantage]. We’ve got to take advantage of that. They’re strong. They’re a good team, but we are, too. It’s going to be a battle.”
But how much does the home ice advantage really matter?
“At this time of year, it’s about your will, whether you’re on the road or at home,” Brown explained. “It’s nice to start a series at home, but it’s a matter of getting the job done. Then it becomes a momentum changer.”
“The mindset is definitely different,” Brown elaborated. “When you go on the road, you’re going into enemy territory, and you’re really focused. [At home], it’s a matter of preparing and focusing, taking care of home ice. We’ve played well on home ice [this season]. Now it’s a matter of going out and doing it.”
No matter how you slice it, Kings/Sharks could be the best series in the second round.
“It’s going to be a fun series,” said Kopitar. “They have some big bodies, strong players. It’s going to be intense, and I think it’s going to be a good battle.”
“They’re a divisional rival, inter-state,” said Brown. “All that adds to the series. They beat us in six games [two years ago]. It wasn’t a very nasty series two years ago, but the deeper in the playoffs you go, the more intense it gets.”
Brown stressed that his team needs to get one thing straight.
“I think it’s important for this team to understand that it’s a new year, and things probably aren’t going to go how they went last year,” he emphasized. “We’re going to have to find different ways to win, and I think we showed that in the first round, with big goals at big times.”
“We’ve just got to stick to our game plan,” he added. “That’s a key for us. We’re not comparing ourselves to what we did last year.”
Sutter said that he is not worried going into the second round.
“We’ll be ready,” he said. “I don’t have big concerns. Both teams have had two or three days off. They’ve had a couple of injuries, and we have, [too].”
“I’m just more anxious to start playing.”
The Sharks swept the Canucks out of the first round, and although it was not easy, the Canucks do not present the defensive or physical challenge that the Kings do. With the exception of Burns, the Sharks’ top forwards are not big, physical players, something the Kings should be able to exploit.
Assuming that the teams are roughly equal on the blue line, and that Quick continues his solid play, it is difficult to imagine the Sharks being able to bottle up the Kings forecheck the way the Blues did in the first round. That should give the Kings the edge they need to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Kings in six.
About That Other “Rivalry…”
Thanks to a very poor performance in Game 7 of their Western Conference Quarterfinal series against the Detroit Red Wings, the heavily favored Anaheim Ducks are now scheduling tee times instead of getting ready to host the Kings in a should-have-been second round matchup.
“[A Kings/Ducks playoff series] would be great for hockey in Southern California,” said left wing Dustin Penner.
The two teams have never met in the playoffs.
“Anaheim would’ve been good for Southern California, for youth hockey all around this area,” said Stoll. “It’s never happened before, so that would’ve been exciting.”
Despite what many Kings and Ducks fans claim, evidence strongly suggests that before such a rivalry can truly exist, the two teams will have to face each other in the playoffs.
To be sure, if you talk to Kings and Ducks fans, many will rave about how they despise the other team and about the huge rivalry between the teams.
But based on this reporter’s observations since the Ducks entered the National Hockey League in 1993-94, that rivalry exists only between the fans of the two teams, and has been greatly magnified since the advent of social media in recent years.
Indeed, when you ask Kings players about the rivalry, they usually stress their rivalries with the Canucks and the Sharks, two teams they’ve met in the playoffs in recent years. In contrast, any talk about a rivalry with the Ducks is very, very muted. The players simply do not feel that there is a rivalry with the Ducks.
“Everybody talks about a rivalry between us, but I haven’t seen it yet,” said Quick. “They’re competitive games, but you get that with any team in the Western Conference. I guess that if we did play them [in the post-season], it would be good to actually get a rivalry.”
Although many believe the close proximity creates a natural rivalry, again, the players are not feeling that at all.
“Just because we’re less than an hour from each other hasn’t made it a rivalry,” Quick stressed. “I don’t think we’ve played’em [in the playoffs]. If we [do] play them, it’ll be good to start forming a rivalry with them.”
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