LOS ANGELES -- While many Los Angeles sports fans were eagerly hopping aboard a suddenly overflowing Los Angeles Kings bandwagon this week, Kings coach Darryl Sutter cautioned his team and the media to settle down. The Kings’ franchise-first 3-0 series lead on the Vancouver Canucks was nice but ultimately meaningless without another win.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Sutter said. “You don’t get anything for winning three games.”
Now, Sutter is generally viewed as a curmudgeon and his scowl on the bench is legendary in every city he has coached and played in during his 19 years in the NHL, but he has been around the game long enough to know that series leads, no matter how big or small, can quickly turn into series losses if you think it’s over before it is.
Following the Canucks’ 3-1 win over the Kings in Game 4, this series is far from over with two of the next three games slated for Vancouver and the Canucks now playing with Daniel Sedin, who returned to the ice Wednesday for the first time in nearly four weeks after dealing with a concussion.
“We have nothing to lose,” Sedin said. “It’s pretty easy to play hockey when you have nothing to lose. You see that every year in the NHL. Teams you thought were out start winning. You can just relax and have fun, and we did that tonight. It’s tough in the playoffs to do that, but we’re in a position now where L.A. has all the pressure and we just have to go out and play hockey.”
That odd philosophical change in the series took place the moment the Kings, the No. 8 seed, took a 3-0 series lead on the No. 1 seed Canucks, who finished with the best record in the NHL and were on the brink of being the first Presidents’ Cup trophy winners to be swept in the first round.
Sutter stressed to his team before Wednesday night's game the difference between a close-out game and the first three games of the series, in which the Kings’ toughness, aggressiveness and carefree attitude propelled them to three straight wins over Vancouver. If the Kings’ players had sneaked a peek at the closing moments of the playoff game before them on television, they would have seen how different it really is. On the brink of being swept, the Pittsburgh Penguins demolished the Philadelphia Flyers 10-3 in a game that was so lopsided “#mercyrule” was trending on Twitter.
Last season, teams had a 6-9 record in the first close-out game of a series, and the year before, the record was 7-8. It shouldn’t come as a big surprise, especially in the case of a team up 3-0. While one team is simply hoping to advance in a series, the other is fighting for its playoff life.
“What is tangible, and this is a fact, is, as series go along, how difficult it is to win games,” Sutter said. “That is what’s tangible. There are no easy parts or easy seconds or easy shifts or any of that. It’s really simple. One is tougher to win than not winning at all. Two is a lot tougher to win than one, and three is a lot tougher to win than two. Then there is no winning until you win four. Everything else, it’s just time. ... It’s very difficult. The only way you can get that experience is to understand how difficult it is and then actually end up doing it.”
That is one thing these young Kings have failed to do together as a team. Sure there are some new faces here and there who have experience winning a series, winning a close-out game and even winning a Stanley Cup, but it is something Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene and Brad Richardson -- who have been with the team during its past two one-and-done playoff runs -- have yet to do together. This is uncharted territory, and the only way to learn how to do it is, well, just to do it.
“The best way to approach it always with those guys is to have fun with it,” Sutter said. “If you’re playing against top players, then have some fun with it.”
When they are level or playing with a lead, it seems no team has more fun than the Kings, but they haven’t yet shown they are the type of team that can come back from a deficit in the postseason. Early in Wednesday's game, the Kings looked as if they were on their way to being the first No. 8 seed to sweep a No. 1 seed in the playoffs. They took a 1-0 lead with seven minutes remaining in the opening period when Kopitar got around a check attempt from Mason Raymond and scored over Cory Schneider's left shoulder. The lead and the game, however, got away from the Kings after the first period as the Canucks scored two goals in the second period and another in the third period. The Canucks’ go-ahead goal in the second period was their first lead of the series since they scored the first goal of the series way back in Game 1.
“It was an intense game, as we expected,” Kopitar said. “They were facing elimination and they came out strong. I thought we had a decent start but there was too much of a let-up later on.”
The previous two seasons, Game 4 of the first round at Staples Center proved to be the Kings’ personal house of horrors. In both games, they had a chance to tie the series; in both situations, they lost before finally getting eliminated at home in Game 6. The one positive the Kings have going for them is that in both of those series, they won Game 5 and were better on the road than they were at home, much like this year.
The Kings now have won just one of their past seven home playoff games while they currently have won a franchise-best four straight playoff games on the road. So maybe it’s a good thing the Kings are going back to Vancouver.
“We knew the 'closer' would be the hardest game of the series,” Doughty said. “We go into Game 5 as a must-win situation for us. We have to go in there as if we’re down. We can’t take it for granted that we’re up 3-1. Maybe we did that tonight, being up 3-0. Maybe we were overconfident but we have to go into Vancouver as if we’re down and take care of business.”