EL SEGUNDO--If he could make it snow on game days, Kings coach Darryl Sutter probably would.
Waking up to ocean views and driving to work on 75-degree winter mornings might be viewed as perks of living in Southern California, but it doesn’t always benefit the NHL lifestyle.
At least Sutter seems to think so.
“It’s not a hockey environment, is it?” he said last week. “It may be why they haven’t won too many division titles here.”
Sutter is the first to realize the biggest obstacle still lies ahead for the Kings, and it’s located in their own backyard. They return home for Games 3 and 4 against the Canucks after winning the first two in the best-of-seven Western Conference playoff series. They haven't been up 2-0 in a series since 1968.
The Kings have managed to win four straight playoff games on the road for the first time in franchise history. Now they just need to figure out how to win at home. They’ve lost their last five postseason games at Staples Center, each deflating in their own way.
Both the Canucks and Sharks clinched a series at Staples Center in the last two years. Vancouver was 13 minutes from going down, 3-games-to-1, against the Kings two years ago, but rallied from behind to beat the hosts and take the series in six. Last season, the Kings had a 4-0 lead in the second period of Game 3 against San Jose, and looked in great shape to go up, 2-1, in the series, but crumbled on their home ice and again lost in six.
As for this season, save for a desperate 7-1-1 close that allowed the Kings to slip into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed, they’ve been rather average at Staples Center, owning a 21-13-5 record.
Looking back, there was that 3-0 loss to the Devils on Oct. 25, followed by a 3-0 whitewash to the Oilers nine days later. In early December, they lost to Montreal, which finished last in the East. A month later they were shut out by Columbus, the last place team in the West. Probably the lowest point at Staples Center came in back-to-back 1-0 losses to Phoenix and Calgary in mid-February.
Just last week, the Kings went into their final regular-season home game and blew a two-goal lead late in the second period against visiting San Jose, eventually losing in a shootout. That opened the door for Phoenix to sneak in and win the Pacific Division title, leaving the franchise’s lone Smythe Division banner from 1991 still hanging alone at Staples Center.
Whether it’s the weather, or the traffic or outside distractions, Sutter believes the Kings face a unique challenge around the NHL, one that can’t go unaddressed to one of the youngest teams in the league.
“You have to really work at it, especially when you don’t have a lot of experience,” Sutter said of changing the environment.
The most experienced player on the Kings last season, Ryan Smyth, requested a trade back to the Edmonton Oilers last summer, even though the Kings were a playoff-caliber team and the Oilers are stuck in a lengthy rebuilding pattern. Smyth cited the desire of raising his family in an environment where he and his wife felt more comfortable.
Sutter would likely take a big step toward changing some of the environment if he could squeeze two more victories out of the Kings. He might not have to make it snow, but a series win for the first time since 2001 would surely earn the Kings more attention in the sports-saturated L.A. market.
There’s no better time to get started than Sunday night at Staples Center.