Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Kings in a good spot despite adversity
By Pierre LeBrun
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- There's a reason no team has won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and '98:
It's damn tough.
Reproducing the hunger and drive to go all-out over two months is mighty difficult. Once a player has done it, he realizes how much sacrifice it takes. He remembers what his body feels like at the end of it.
Two-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams knows that all too well.
"The parity of the league makes it a lot tougher. It’s hard [to repeat]," Williams said Wednesday after he and the Los Angeles Kings practiced. "It is a hard grind getting 16 wins throughout a postseason. But the trick is to make sure you have the same hunger that drove you last year, because you have won.
"That next Stanley Cup should be your favorite one. That’s what we're finding here, that's what we’re looking for. And there are teams in our way. We're still in a good spot."
The reigning Cup champion Kings do indeed control their fate despite having lost two straight to the San Jose Sharks and sitting in a 2-2 tie in the Western Conference semifinals. It's now a best-of-three series with two of those three games at home, where the Kings have dominated of late, winning 12 straight.
"We won the last game of the regular season for a reason," star center Anze Kopitar said. "We got to make it count."
It certainly isn't coming easily this spring for the Kings, who steamrolled through the playoffs last spring like the 1987 Edmonton Oilers.
Los Angeles was healthy and dominant a year ago, barely facing any adversity in going up 3-0 in all four series. It was silly, really.
Now the Kings get to experience the playoffs like normal contenders. You know, where you lose a game here and there. And lose a player here and there.
They're finding out that repeating is awfully tough.
"The physical part is obviously huge, but just the highs and lows that you go through, you got to be ready for that in your head," Kopitar said. "Last year we had a lot more highs than we had lows. This time it's a little bit different. Mentally, it's challenging. You have to take it as a new day and prepare that way."
This a good test for the Kings, who have character and guts. It would be a shock if they didn't raise their game to another level in Game 5 on Thursday at Staples Center.
This team still has the hunger.
"Absolutely, absolutely," said Williams, who appears to be playing banged up in this series. "We're professionals, we're here for a reason. That Stanley Cup, the big, silver jug, is the pinnacle of success in our professional life. Regardless of whether you've won it once, twice, five times, come playoff time that's all you want."
It won't all be solved between the ears, though.
There are X's-and-O's issues, too.
"We've just got to get more O-zone time and less D-zone. It's simple," said veteran defenseman Matt Greene, who got his first good look at the issues Tuesday night in his first game of this postseason.
"They’re a cycle team just like us, and the more they're in our zone, the less we're establishing our game plan and doing what we want behind their defensemen. That's it. It's pretty simple," Greene said. "There's no magic here. We just need more offensive-zone time."
The Kings haven't generated enough offensive pressure in this series. At least not the kind we’re accustomed to seeing from them.
To that end, head coach Darryl Sutter took his blender out Wednesday, shuffling the deck on his lines, at least for practice.
Captain Dustin Brown was off Kopitar's line and found himself on the third line with Trevor Lewis and Dwight King. Replacing Brown on Kopitar's line with Williams was Kyle Clifford. Dustin Penner skated with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, after Penner replaced King on that unit midway through Game 4.
"Quite honestly last night as the night went on we used a lot of different guys," Sutter said Wednesday when asked about the line changes. "Trying to get something going and generate a little bit more with some of our top guys."
The Brown-Kopitar-Williams unit just hasn't delivered enough. That's a big part of the issues, especially when you think back to both Brown and Kopitar generating playoff MVP votes last season.
"Quite honestly as a line, they've been struggling for two series, if you look at it," Sutter said.
It's clear that the coach isn't satisfied with too many of his forwards' production, other than Richards and Carter.
"I think we need four lines with some balance because really other than Richie and Jeff, we really haven't been able to play anybody to give us a little bit of energy and continuity," Sutter said.
The veteran Kings coach leaned back on the bench he was sitting on at this team's practice facility Wednesday and pointed out to the assembled reporters where this deadlocked series basically stands.
"The score is now 8-7 four games in, and we're winning 8-7," Sutter said.
In other words: They knew they were in for a fight with the Sharks, they're not surprised, they're not panicking, and they've got home-ice advantage.
The road to glory isn't so smoothly paved this year. A win Thursday night, however, would get the Kings back on track.