EL SEGUNDO, CA — Down 2-0 in the 2013 Western Conference Finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, the Los Angeles Kings are not in a do-or-die situation.
Indeed, they are not facing elimination. That said, they know that they cannot afford to go down in the series, 3-0, not against a healthy Blackhawks team that is now firing on all cylinders, and is getting contributions from all parts of their lineup—highly reminiscent of the Kings team that won the Stanley Cup last season.
“We [were] here, what, three weeks ago,” asked right wing Justin Williams, referring to his team coming back from a 2-0 series deficit in the first round of the playoffs against the St. Louis Blues. “Obviously, it’s four wins or go home, so it’s not do-or-die tomorrow, but it is.”
“[In the] St. Louis series, we were down two games right away,” said center Colin Fraser. “We can still talk about the games, but at the end of the day, we lost both games, so we have to put them behind us. We can’t dwell on it. Especially last night. We obviously weren’t good enough, so we’ve got to move forward. We did some video today. We’ve just simply got to be better.”
The team’s attitude is no different than it was prior to the start of the series, and, as Williams indicated, they know that they’ve been here before.
“We were down 2-0 against St. Louis,” said winger and captain Dustin Brown. “The only difference is we’re in the Western Conference Finals now. With each round there’s a little more pressure. It’s a matter of handling that individually and collectively. We’re back on home ice where we’ve played very well this year. Today we looked at some video on what we can do better. It’s a matter of executing.”
“I think you can draw on the fact that we’ve been in this situation before, in the sense that the series is long from over, for our mindset,” added Brown. “It’s about playing the game. I mean, we try to cut it in half tomorrow night, and that’s all we’re worried about—tomorrow night. We’re not thinking about Game 4 or Game 5. We’re thinking about tomorrow night, your first shift, first play you have to make, and you go from there.”
“[We have] confidence in our dressing room—we’ve been here before,” said Williams. “We’ve been a successful team before. You look around our room, there’s a lot of familiar faces. Confidence in one another is key, especially at this crucial point.”
One obstacle in their path is fatigue.
“We have five games in ten days coming up,” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “It’s taxing on the guys, for sure it is. We chose to come home last night. By the time you shut her down, you shut’er down at 2:30 in the morning. Today you’re just trying to get close to full again. It’s hard.”
“I think it’s fair to say we’re probably not as fresh as we were last year,” said Brown. “We had four, five days off between every series. We hadn’t played as many games at this time last year. At the same time, this time of year, when you’re going through it, you’re not thinking, ‘oh, I’m tired.’ You’re just reloading, [and] getting ready to go again. It’s more of a mental—getting your head wrapped around it mentally, than it is physically, I think.”
Despite the fatigue, the Kings know they just have to dig deeper, if they can.
“Playoffs—playing lots of games in a short amount of time, you’ve just got to find a way to dig in, whether you’re tired or not,” said Fraser. “You really don’t have a choice. We know we’ve got a good team. We’ve obviously proven we’ve got a good team last year and this year. I think we’ve answered to the adversity we had this year. We’ve just got to do it again.”
“Every team’s in the same boat,” added Fraser. “Every team is playing lots of games. Maybe last year we didn’t play as many. It’s part of the playoffs, part of the run. Every team is going to play a lot of games in a short amount of time. As far as travel goes, as far as the schedule goes, they’re in the same boat as us. There’s no real advantage or disadvantage.”
“I don’t think [fatigue will be an issue],” said Williams. “Maybe in the regular season, maybe a little bit more malaise. [But] three [games] in four [nights] come playoff time? You get up for every game. Your heart’s pumping. You’re a little bit more excited. Every play means a little bit more, so I don’t think fatigue will have anything to do with anything [tonight].”
Kings Are Likely Hiding More Injuries Than They’re Letting On
To be sure, it is more than just fatigue that is dragging on the Kings. Indeed, injuries, even though no National Hockey League team will point to them as an excuse, have been a significant factor, and that does not take into account suspected injuries they have chosen not to reveal.
“We’re nursing injuries just like everyone else is,” said Williams. “If we get [center] Mike [Richards, who missed Game 2 on June 2 in Chicago due to a suspected concussion] back, whenever that may be, I don’t know—we’re going to need to hold the fort until then.”
“Injuries are part of the game,” Fraser noted. “You never want to see anyone get hurt, [but] we get [center Jarret Stoll] back [for Game 1], and then [Richards] goes down. He’s a big part of our team. But with that being said, there’s nothing you can do about it, either. Other guys have to step up and have the opportunity to play more, a bigger role.”
Can the Kings overcome that level of adversity?
“[There are] a lot of good components that go into a Stanley Cup-winning team,” Williams explained. “The first one is being a healthy team. But good teams find ways to win through adversity and build through that. We were able to win without Jarret Stoll for a large chunk of the San Jose series. We were able to win, [and then we] got him back.”
“I think adversity can be a good thing sometimes, if you can get through it,” Fraser noted. “I mean, injuries are part of hockey. Every team’s had their injuries, at some point. Things like that, there’s nothing you can do. There’s nothing you can do also about the first two games. You can sit there and dwell on it, or you can move forward, just play our best game. We have to bring our best game in Game 3.”
“We’re going to play the same way,” said Sutter. “We’re not going to say, ‘oh, pressure, adversity.’ That’s why we’re a good hockey club. That doesn’t come into play. We know how our team is going to play.”
Sutter then hinted that his team may be dealing with more injuries than just Richards and his suspected concussion.
“We need guys to get better a little bit, if they can, if they’re able to play through what’s wrong with them, or find something in their game a little bit more, or things we can help them with,” he said. “That makes them a little better. That’s how we’ll stay alive.”
Note that Sutter said, “…if they’re able to play through what’s wrong with them.”
Sure, he could simply be referring to Richards, but all indications point in another direction. In any case, most of the players skipped the optional practice on June 3, giving them some time to rest and heal.
“A day like today, again, [it’s] about getting your rest,” said Brown. “It’s been a long couple days playing back-to-back, the travel. It’s just getting back to square one today, then tomorrow you start focusing on the mental side of things, getting yourself reloaded.”
Back To Square One
Through two games against the Blackhawks, the Kings have looked nothing like the team that won the 2012 Stanley Cup Championship, as the Blackhawks pretty much had their way with them in all three zones. As such, part of getting back to square one was studying video.
“They’re a fast team,” said Fraser. “All four lines can skate. They really feed off our turnovers. They get it up right away, whether it’s [defenseman] to [defenseman], [and] right up. In my opinion, they, more than any other team, get that stretch guy out at the far blue line. I played with [Chicago head coach Joel Quenneville] in Chicago. I know that’s what he does. They’ve got so much speed, they get on the forecheck very well.”
“I just finished watching video of the game, and there’s a lot of neutral zone play,” Williams noted. “There’s a lot of in and outs. There’s not a lot of sustained pressure.”
“They’re a good checking team,” Williams added. “They check you and try to get you frustrated. In turn, that’s what we do. But they’ve been more successful at it than we have. Do I feel we played a better game in Game 1? Yes, but that’s what losers say.”
The Kings were a tremendous team on the forecheck during last season’s playoffs, and it was one of the key weapons they used to skate off with the Stanley Cup. But during this year’s post-season party, the tables have been mostly turned on the Kings, who have spent the vast majority of the first and second rounds in their own zone, and it was no different during Games 1 and 2 against the Blackhawks.
“It’s the way they play,” said Williams. “They can pressure. They have a 1-2-2 forecheck that preys on turnovers and they have a lot of speedy forwards and defensemen that are able to jump the other way quickly. You saw that [in Game 2]. A couple of mistakes end up in our net.”
So what do the Kings need to do to turn things around?
“Number one, no turnovers,” said Fraser. “Can’t turn the puck over, because they feed right into that. I think [it’s] simplicity, get the puck deep, make them go back and get pucks, and make them play defense. Less time and space will mean less speed for them.”
“I think neutral zone [play is key],” Brown stressed. “We had a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone. Chicago is a very good checking team. They’re not an overly physical team, though. Their transition game is probably one of the better transition games in the league. Making them go 200 feet for all their chances will go a long way. I think that will come out in the game.”
“They’re going to be in our zone, we know that,” said Williams. “We just need to elevate our game, plain and simple.”
Noting that breaking out of their own zone cleanly has been next to impossible for them during the playoffs, Williams emphasized that the Kings still have to find a way.
“Sometimes it’s not going to be that clean coming through the neutral zone,” he indicated. “It’s going to be a little sloppy, third efforts, then maybe you’re going to catch them. But we did some better things yesterday and we’re going to continue to get better.”
Still Struggling: Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown
Just as glaring an issue for the Kings is the lack of production from center Anze Kopitar and from Brown.
Indeed, Kopitar has scored just two goals with five assists for seven points in 15 games, with just 27 shots on goal, while Brown has scored three goals with one assist for four points and 28 shots through 15 games.
Further, their shots on goal totals do not tell the whole story. If you add in missed shots—both Kopitar and Brown have 18 missed shots in the 2013 playoffs, Kopitar is averaging just 3.00 attempts per game, while Brown is just slightly better at 3.06.
That is a statistical indication of what has been evident on the ice—the line is not generating much in terms of quality scoring opportunities.
“I’m sure [Kopitar is] frustrated,” said Sutter. “We spend a lot of time together talking about stuff, working on stuff, trying to find little areas that he can do differently or do better.”
“When Kopitar has the puck, he’s a top player in the league,” added Sutter. “When he doesn’t have the puck, he’s a good checker. That means he could have the puck more. Quite honestly, he can support the puck better. Certainly who he plays with can feel privileged that they’re playing with a top player. They should be doing everything they can to play with him.”
Brown said that video has revealed to them what the problems are.
“I think it’s pretty fair to say, as a line, we’re collectively in a slump,” he noted. “We looked over some video today. We know what we need to do better. It’s getting into their offensive zone—our spacing is pretty significant, and it’s hard to play, especially against a team like Chicago.”
“They kind of have that man-on-man with an extra man in there, he added. “When you don’t have the spacing right, one guy eliminates the other guy, and he’s quick on the puck. Probably more importantly against Chicago, we need to have closer support in all three zones.”
Of course, if Kopitar is not playing at 100 percent efficiency due to some kind of injury, as many believe he is suffering, all that goes out the window.
Home Sweet Home?
With Games 3 and 4 at Staples Center, having won seven straight playoff games, and 14 straight home games extending back to the regular season, the Kings have reason to be confident about getting back into the series.
“I think it’s a good thing we’re back on home ice,” said Fraser. “We’ve been good at that through the playoffs, and really, the whole season. We have to take advantage of it, of course. [There’s] nothing we can do about the first two games. We’ve got to move forward, iron out the wrinkles, and get back to work. It’s definitely one shift, one period at a time. The result, in the end, is, hopefully, positive.”
Last season, the Kings were a stronger road team during the post-season, with a 10-1 record.
“Tell you the truth, I’m not sure why we went 10-1 last year on the road,” Williams shrugged. “Obviously, preparation is key, and a lot of other factors come into it. But we’re certainly not out of it. We’re going to do the best we can to cut this lead in half, and move from there. Our focus is one game. That’s what it is when you’re down two. Cut it in half, then the next day you try again if you’re successful.”
Indeed, the Kings have been tremendously successful at home this season.
“We have played better hockey at home, and I think part of it is we get in on the forecheck better,” said Brown. “When you look around the league, this is probably the one year, I’m not sure of the [winning] percentages, but I’m sure it’s pretty high, league wide, it’s been close to 70%, I think.”
“Teams feed off their energy at home, and playing in front of our fans is great,” added Brown. “[It’s] just getting off to a good start.”
Even with home ice advantage, the Kings know they cannot rely on it.
“It’s not a rite of passage you’re going to win at home,” Williams emphasized. “Whether we get in there and grind to a 1-0 victory, or win by more than one goal, at the end of the day, it just needs to get done tomorrow.”
“Home ice has been something that we’ve been able to rely on and have in our back pocket if we have struggled on the road, and we have,” Williams added. “Certainly, confidence is high for us coming back home. [We’ve had] a lot of success here. Guys have played well here. We’ve won every which way. We’re going to need to continue that against an extremely good team.”
Fraser cautioned against taking home ice advantage for granted.
“We’re comfortable on home ice, we’ve played well on home ice, and we’ve proven to be good on home ice,” said Fraser. “The next step is taking advantage of it tomorrow. It’s not going to be easy, and we can’t expect to win just because we’re on home ice. We’ve got to be ready to go and get back in the series.”
“[You] can’t take it for granted on home ice,” added Fraser.
It’s hard work. It’s not going to be easy, by any means. I guess we got to get back to basics, get back to how we were playing before, like Game 7, and Game 5 of [the] San Jose [series].”
As Brown mentioned earlier, a good, fast start will be absolutely crucial.
“We talk about it all the time,” said Brown. “We know what they’re going to do. We just have to have better starts. We talked about it in San Jose when we played in San Jose, too. They seemed to jump all over us, as well. For whatever reason, we weren’t quite ready or quite as sharp as we should have been. Sometimes, like last night, it’s almost too little, too late.”
“The old cliché, ‘you’ve got to have a good start,’ it’s huge,” added Brown. “[It] sets the tone for the whole game.”
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