LA Kings Point To Mental Toughness, Confidence As Key Factors In Their Playoff Success

LA Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell
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Photo: David Sheehan/
LOS ANGELES — After their 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Western Conference Final on May 18, the Los Angeles Kings were focused on what they needed to be better at in Game 2 on May 21.

“I think we can do a better job of getting in front of the net and making it harder on their goalie,” center Anze Kopitar told the media in Chicago after the game. “We had some pretty good shots, but nobody was hanging around, so [Blackhawks goaltender Corey Crawford] was able to see everything.”

“We didn’t get the best scoring chances,” rookie right wing Tyler Toffoli told the media in Chicago after the game. “We’ve got to get in front of him. We’ve got to score some of those dirty goals. But one goal is not enough. We’ve got to score more than one goal to win a game in the playoffs against the Chicago Blackhawks.”

The Kings were also a bit sloppy between the tops of the face-off circles.

“We turned a few pucks over,” defenseman Willie Mitchell told the media in Chicago after the game. “They’re a great rush team, and they make you pay. They did that [today], so we’ve got to clean that up. If we don’t make those turnovers in the neutral zone and don’t allow those rush chances which they’re great at. That’ll give us a chance.”

“They have a good team over there,” said Kopitar. “Right down the lineup, they’re pretty solid. We’re going to have to do a better job of checking, not giving up timely goals, and scoring a few more ourselves.”

As Mitchell alluded to, one of those rush chances was a three-on-one break late in the third period that was finished off by Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews, giving Chicago their final margin of victory.

“[If] you look at their roster, they’ve got a lot of skill up there,” forward Jeff Carter told the media in Chicago on May 19. “Their top six are pretty strong. You give them odd-man rushes, turnovers in the offensive zone, there’s a pretty good chance they’re going to end up in the back of the net.”

“That’s something we definitely need to limit,” Carter added. “We know that. We’ll get better at it.”

Despite the loss, the Kings played fairly well and even had a chance to win. Nevertheless, they were not good enough in Game 1.

“I think we played fine,” Mitchell noted. “As [Kings head coach] Darryl [Sutter] would say, ‘OK is not OK.’ That’s a real good hockey club over there, so you’re going to have to play a great game to beat them. We’re going to have to regroup and do a better job.”

“I think we played fairly well,” Mitchell added. “But I think you have to play great to beat a good hockey club over there.”

Right wing Justin Williams indicated that the Kings have very little margin for error against the Blackhawks.

“Chicago just comes with its own problems,” Williams told the media in Chicago on May 19. “Their defense are fast and extremely accurate, [and they] do a great job of getting the puck up the ice. If we’re just a little off every game, we’re not going to be good because they’ll expose that. They’ll have guys swinging, guys stretching. If you give them time, they will make you pay.”

“They’re very dynamic,” Williams added. “So we need to have every guy on our team playing the same way, playing with the same urgency and being on your toes instead of your heels.”

Mental Toughness, Confidence Are Keys To Success

Even though they trail the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final, 1-0, it’s not time for the Kings to worry.

“You don’t want to get in that position, but we have a couple times,” center Jarret Stoll told the media in Chicago on May 19. “Obviously, we’re in it now. [But] you just play the games. You’re prepared to win. Sometimes it doesn’t go your way.”

“Our group—we’re not going to get rattled,” Stoll added. “We’re not going to get down. We’re not going to turn on each other. It comes from our coaching staff, our leadership group, all the way down our lineup, it’s just a strong group that way.”

Much of that comes from their playoff experience during the previous two seasons.

“[Our playoff run] two years ago was pretty special,” said Stoll. “To be up 3-0 in every single round is, you know, tough to do, We got lucky. We got fortunate in a lot of those situations. We gained a lot of confidence from that, realized we can go into tough buildings and win this year as well.”

“San Jose and Anaheim had, arguably, the top two, three, four best home records this year,” added Stoll. “We went into those tough buildings and won. Chicago is no different. A tough building. We’re going to have to figure out a way to win Game 2 and move on.”

Mental toughness is a key factor in the Kings’ uncanny ability to find ways to win under adverse conditions and when the odds are stacked heavily against them.

“Sometimes, when you’re going through a playoff series, you can easily see cracks, probably not after Game 1, but maybe Game 2, 3, 4, you can see cracks in teams, and then you push at them until they’re done,” Stoll noted. “[But] with our group, I don’t think we have any of that. I haven’t seen any of that in all the playoffs that I’ve been a part of with the L.A. Kings.”

“It’s a strong group to be a part of,” Stoll added. “Hopefully we can keep that going.”

Was Fatigue A Factor In Game 1?

After the Kings won Game 7 of their second round playoff series at Anaheim on May 16, they practiced the next morning and then flew to Chicago that afternoon, before playing Game 1 of the Western Conference Final at Chicago on May 18.

Talk about a whirlwind of activity.

Meanwhile, the Blackhawks were waiting around to find out who they were playing, and by the time the Kings arrived at the United Center for Game 1, which had an early 2:00 PM Central time (noon Pacific Daylight Time) start, the Blackhawks were all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed after four days of rest.

As expected, Kings players denied that fatigue was a factor in Game 1.

“I don’t think we were tired,” said Toffoli. “It was a long day of travel, but we were all ready, we were all into it, we were all focused.”

“We had enough to re-group, get some rest, and get going again,” said Kopitar.

But Sutter said that fatigue was a factor early in the contest.

“Yeah, only time I really noticed it, quite honest, was early in the game,” he told the media in Chicago after the game. “They were going to come out with some energy. They did two or three times in the first where we got caught at the end of shifts. That’s where it showed up. Other than that, I don’t think it really hurt us that much.”

“We’re going to use [Monday] to rest, and then get back at it and be ready for the next game,” said Toffoli.

Mitchell Returns

After missing eight playoff games due to a suspected leg injury, Mitchell returned to action in Game 1 at Chicago, playing 16:49 over 24 shifts, earning a +1 plus/minus rating.

“It felt pretty good,” he said. “The first one is always the easiest because you’re so full of adrenaline. It’s the second and third [games], after being off for a couple of weeks, where you kind of have to play a smarter game. But it felt good. Hopefully, I can continue to build upon my game and help my teammates out.”

Mitchell was anxious to get back into the fray.

“I talked to Darryl this morning,” Mitchell told the media after Game 1 in Chicago. “I was itching [to return during] the last series, but it was a quick turnaround after my injury. We didn’t have many practices.”

“I’m excited that my teammates gave me this opportunity,” Mitchell added. “I didn’t play last round. That was a hard-fought series against the Ducks. They gave me the opportunity to get in here and be a part of this. I just wish it was a little better result for us.”

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