|ESPN.com: NHL Playoffs 2013||[Print without images]|
This spring, it hasn't entirely been a new feeling.
And every time they've been pushed into a corner in these playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings have come out swinging.
At some point, though, how many times can you go to that same well and dig out a desperation win?
They did it after falling down 2-0 in the first round to St. Louis. They did it after seeing San Jose win two straight and gain momentum last round.
They always seem to answer. And that's a must Tuesday night against the Chicago Blackhawks at Staples Center, with another loss dropping the Kings into a 3-0 series hole in the Western Conference finals.
"We're certainly not making it easy on ourselves, right?" Kings center Colin Fraser said with a smile on Monday, with the series now shifted to Southern California. "I don't know, but you got to find a way.
"It's the playoffs. You're playing lots of games in a short amount of time, [and] you have to find a way to dig in. Whether you're tired or not, you really don't have a choice. We know we have a good team; we've proven we have a good team last year and this year. I think we've answered to the adversity we've had this year. And we just got to do it again."
The hockey gods have a funny way of balancing the books. A year ago, the Kings barely faced any adversity in winning 16 of 20 playoff games and avoiding any key injuries.
A year later, they're not as lucky. Star center Mike Richards was the latest to go down with a suspected concussion -- making the task that much more daunting against the Presidents' Trophy winners.
Fact is, the Kings don't have anything to prove to anyone at this point. They've reached the final four after winning it all a year ago, more than a respectable defense of their title, especially compared to the next-year struggles of many past winners in the last decade.
But you don't get the sense these guys are ready to roll over.
"We're not a team that gets ahead of ourselves, down on ourselves, up on ourselves, listen to what somebody else says," Kings head coach Darryl Sutter said Monday. "We just keep it in there, stay within ourselves. Doesn't matter if we're up two, down two. You know, the other team knows they're going to have their hands full."
A legitimate concern, however, is whether the Kings are just too beat up, banged up and fatigued to find that next level this week and salvage their season.
A brutal first-round series with St. Louis -- perhaps the most physical series in years -- followed by a seven-gamer with San Jose has noticeably affected the Kings' energy level in the opening two games in Chicago.
|Things sure were easier for Jeff Carter and the Kings during their Stanley Cup run last season.|
A year ago, they were playing shorter series and getting longer breaks between rounds.
It's been a completely different tale now.
"I think it's fair to say we're probably not as fresh as we were last year," Kings captain Dustin Brown said Monday. "We had 4-5 days off in every series [last year]. We hadn't played this many games at this time last year.
"But at the same time, at this time of year when you're going through it, you're not thinking, 'Oh, I'm tired.' You're just reloading and getting ready to go again. It's more getting your head wrapped around it mentally than it is physical, I think."
And on that front, you know how much it's killing Brown and linemate Anze Kopitar that their offensive struggles are continuing in these playoffs.
A year ago, Brown and Kopitar tied for the team playoff lead in scoring with 20 points apiece; they were point-a-game players in the postseason and as clutch as can be. Measure that against this spring, with Brown only at four points (three goals, one assist) in 15 playoff games, while Kopitar has seven (two goals, five assists).
"They've struggled offensively, for sure," Sutter said. "That's not me jumping out making a statement. That is a fact. That's a statistical fact."
You know how much it's weighing on both players. They're proud competitors. They have not hidden from the media over the past few weeks, there almost every day to answer the bell with reporters.
And while it's a journalist's duty to point out the duo's offensive struggles, you always balance those thoughts at this time of year with the possibility that they're playing through some type of injury.
Not that either player would ever use that as an excuse. If they feel well enough to dress, they feel they should produce.
"I think it's pretty fair to say as a line we're collectively in a slump," Brown said. "We looked over some video today and we know what we have to do better."
To a man, it's clear what the No. 1 topic of that video session was Monday for the Kings: turnovers.
"We had a lot of turnovers in the neutral zone," said Brown, pinpointing what the video evidence showed them about Games 1 and 2. "Chicago's a very good checking team, they're not overly physical, and their transition game is probably one of the better transition games in the league. Making them go 200 feet for all their chances will go a long way in the outcome of the game."
|The Blackhawks are doing a lot to frustrate the Kings in the Western Conference finals.|
Fraser was a Cup champion with the Blackhawks in 2010. He knows what head coach Joel Quenneville preaches over there.
"It's no secret how both teams play," Fraser said. "They're a fast team; all four lines can skate. They really feed off our turnovers. They get it up right away, whether it's D to D and right up, and in my opinion more than any other team [they] get that stretch guy at the far blue line.
"I played with Q in Chicago. I know that's what he does. They've got so much speed that they get on the forecheck very well. Number one, no turnovers -- you can't turn the puck over. Because they feed right into that. We need simplicity, and just getting pucks in deep and [making] them go back and get the puck and play more defense. Less time and space will mean less speed for them."
It all sounds about right. We'll find out Tuesday night if the Kings have enough left in the tank to deliver on that knowledge.
Don't count them out just yet.