EL SEGUNDO, CA — It’s that time of year again.
It’s the time of year when hockey fans all over are either at games, or are glued to a television set somewhere watching Stanley Cup Playoff games, and probably not just games in which their favorite team is playing in.
Indeed, this is the best time of year for hockey fans, and that sentiment is shared by National Hockey League players and coaches as well.
“This is the best time of the year,” said Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar. “Everybody gets excited for it, and it’s no different for us.”
But the players cannot allow that excitement—the visions of Stanley Cups dancing in their heads—to distract them from their immediate goal, which is winning the next game, and focusing exclusively on that.
For the Kings, their first round series begins tonight against the San Jose Sharks, at SAP Pavilion in San Jose (7:00 PM; televised in Southern California on Fox Sports West, and nationally on the NBC Sports Network).
Once again, the Kings are starting the playoffs on the road, presenting an added challenge.
“It’s a tough building,” said head coach Darryl Sutter. “A big part of their identity is home ice, their crowd, and their building, so it’s a big challenge.”
But even with conventional wisdom dictating that the road team faces a significant disadvantage, especially in the playoffs, that has not been the case for the Kings over the past two seasons.
“I don’t think it’s a big deal for us,” said Kopitar. “We’ve been used to it, pretty much. We’ve done that the last couple of years, and we’re going to have to do it again. We’re going to go up there, and try to steal a game. We’ll see what happens.”
“There’s a level of comfort starting on the road, so I don’t think it’s a big deal for us,” added Kopitar. “We’re just trying to look at it one game at a time, and just try to win the first game.”
The Kings are buoyed by the fact that they have enjoyed a good deal of success in San Jose in recent years.
“We’ve played well in that building, so that’s the confidence we’re going to take in there,” said center Jarret Stoll. “We’ve won in that building before, this year, last year, every year that I’ve been here, we’ve won in that building.”
“It’s more of a comfort level, comfort zone thing,” added Stoll. “We’re starting on the road, and we’re just focusing on winning Game 1. That’s our only focus, especially in this series, where we’re playing on a Thursday night, and then flying home. That’s a very narrow focus that we need to have—just go in, win Game 1, come back and regroup. Then get ready for Game 2.”
The Kings may be comfortable playing on the road, but confidence in their game on the road is not enough.
“I think we’re comfortable on the road,” said forward and captain Dustin Brown. “We’ve shown that this year, where we’ve had to go on the road and [we’ve] gotten wins. That’s not a problem for this team, but on the other side of the coin, San Jose has been one of the best home teams in the league, consistently, over the last few years. It’s about doing the right things.”
The Sharks’ high-powered offense presents a tremendous challenge for any team, even for the best defensive team in the National Hockey League.
“They have some big forwards, and some skilled forwards,” Kopitar noted. “They’re built [similar to us]. They have strength down the middle, good goaltending, good defense, so it’s going to be a challenge, for sure.”
“First and foremost, they have the high-end skill, with [Joe] Thornton’s vision,” Brown noted. “[Patrick] Marleau’s scored 35 goals for the last however many years, and they’ve got younger guys, like [Joe] Pavelski and [Logan] Couture, who are—I think Pavelski scored 40 for the first time in his career, which is not an easy thing to do in this league, so I think it’s more about how they can spread it around. It’s not just one line that can do the damage. It’s their depth.”
From their first line to their fourth line, the Sharks are one of the deepest teams in the league up front.
“They’re deep,” said Sutter. “It’s not just [Thornton, Marleau and Couture]. They have really good balance up front.”
“They’ve got great depth, offensively,” said Stoll. “They cycle the puck on the forecheck, they get on you quickly. We’re going to have to get back quickly, and ‘out-support’ them, ‘out-support’ their forecheck, and move the puck quickly out of our zone.”
Defense is the Kings’ strength, but they can’t shut down the Sharks forever, and they know it.
“We’re pretty good at defending,” said Brown. “The important thing is understanding that they’re going to have those couple of shifts in a row where they’re peppering us, and keeping us hemmed in our zone. It’s about eliminating their Grade A scoring chances when they have those types of shifts.”
“Every good offensive team will have those shifts where they control the play in the offensive zone,” added Brown. “It’s about preventing the big breakdown—bending but not breaking.”
“We want to play in their zone, and they want to play in our zone,” Stoll noted. “That’s just the way every team is. [But] we feel that we’ve got a great defensive team, a great goaltender—just about the best in the league, so we’re confident in that side of our game.”
The difference in this series is likely to come down to which ones does a better job of managing the puck.
“We’re a good face-off team, and so are they,” Stoll noted. “We’re going to have a great battle, in that aspect of the game. After that, it’s managing the puck—not turning over the puck, not playing the game in the neutral zone.”
“We don’t want to be hacking the puck around the neutral zone,” Stoll added. “We want to get through that, and get in on the forecheck—spend time in the offensive zone. I’m sure that’s similar to what they’re saying. That’s what wins games. That’s what makes it hard on teams over a seven-game series, making them play in the defensive zone, and making them play heavy, hard minutes.”
“Part of what makes our team successful over the last few years is our possession of the puck, our protection of the puck,” Brown emphasized. “A big part of that is our forecheck, and getting in on the forecheck. When we’re on our game, we can get the puck deep, and get the puck back. That goes a long way, when you talk about possession. If we’re quick in our zone getting out, and quick into the zone, getting in, that goes a long way. That’s when you can tell this team is playing well.”
“They get in on the forecheck really well,” Brown added. “They get a lot of rush chances, and I think a lot of their opportunities come off of their forecheck—the bang-bang plays off of turnovers. We have to be aware of that. Coming into our own zone, we have to get back quickly, and help each other out.”
After the Olympic break, and as the 2013-14 regular season wound down, the Kings seemed to be firing on all cylinders, in terms of their forecheck and puck possession, which bodes well heading into the playoffs.
“I think we just got back to playing our game,” said Brown. “Puck possession is a staple of our game, but more importantly, our forecheck, and getting the puck back provides us an opportunity to hang onto pucks, and create offense. Our defensive game has been pretty solid, as well.”
“We have to be aware of what they do really well, but at the same time, we have to bring our ‘A’ game, and do what we really do best,” added Brown.
On the offensive side of the red line, the Kings are improved over the 2012 playoff edition of the Kings, with the addition of left wing Marian Gaborik, who has made a tremendous impact in terms of goal scoring, playmaking, and to the surprise of many, on defense, while playing on a line with Kopitar and right wing Justin Williams.
“I think they’ve played well together,” said Brown. “I think it’s a by-product of our team atmosphere, actually. It’s very similar to when we traded for [Jeff Carter]. He fit right in, very quickly. That’s the result of the type of room we have, and the type of players we have, where a guy can come in, and feel pretty comfortable right away. A lot of times, when [a new player] feels comfortable off the ice, the on-ice stuff takes care of itself.”
“Having Gaborik now is going to be a huge part of our team throughout the playoffs, and we need that line to keep producing,” said star defenseman Drew Doughty.
During the playoffs, everything is magnified, including the little things that may not seem all that important. Nevertheless, they usually seem to add up. Despite that, teams know that they cannot afford to worry too much about them. Instead, they just have to keep things simple.
“If we prepare, if we bring the work ethic that we need to bring, those are the only two things we need to worry about,” said goaltender Jonathan Quick. “They’re going to play their game, we’re going to play our game. Two really good teams. Somebody’s got to win, somebody’s got to lose. Hopefully, we’ll prepare well enough to win.”
“This time of year, you have to pay attention to the little things,” added Quick. “We’re going to do our video, they’re going to do theirs. Like it was last year, there’s such a small difference between winning and losing, we’re going to put in our work, and try to win a game on Thursday.”
“It definitely comes down to who’s going to be the sharper team, and who’s going to make the important plays, the little plays that turn out to be huge plays,” Kopitar stressed. “But that’s what it always is in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter if you play the Sharks, or St. Louis, or Chicago. Everybody is so familiar with each other. Everybody watches video. Everybody prepares the best they can. You’ve just got to go out there and perform.”
A not-so-little thing is the status of defenseman Drew Doughty, who suffered a suspected left shoulder injury at San Jose on April 3, and has not played since.
Sutter indicated that, with the Kings unable to move up or down in the standings at that point, he made the decision to hold Doughty out of the lineup until the playoffs.
“I know I’m good to go,” said Doughty. “I don’t need them to test my strength, or anything like that. I’ve been ready to go for awhile now. The decision really didn’t have much to do with myself. It was whether or not the doctors or the coaches thought it was a good time to play. With a lot of the games not meaning much, they went with me [not playing].”
“I’m feeling good,” added Doughty. “I’m just itching to get back. I’ve just been waiting and waiting for the coaches to let me get back into the game. Hopefully, I haven’t missed too much time, and that I can get right back into my game and play well. I’m confident that I can do that.”
“I’m very anxious to get back [into the lineup]. It sucks watching your team play. There’s nothing worse than sitting in the dressing room, watching the game on TV, rather than knowing you could be out there, making a difference. I can’t wait to get back. I’m looking forward to it very much.”
The Sharks have the advantage offensively, but the Kings will not be far behind, with their top line of Gaborik, Kopitar and Williams playing as well as anyone since Gaborik was acquired at the trade deadline. The Kings are the better defensive team, and with advantages on the blue line and in goal (a definite, clear advantage), the Kings should be able to advance to the Western Conference Semifinals.
Prediction: Kings in six.
The following are Frozen Royalty’s first round predictions, which were posted on Twitter (@frozenroyalty) prior to the start of action on April 16:
in 6 over in 7 over in 6 over
in 6 over
in 5 over in 6 over in 7 over
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