Kings leave last year behind
Series win over Blues prompts questions about 2012, but L.A. focused on present
LOS ANGELES -- The questions are understandable, but you'll have to excuse Darryl Sutter and the Los Angeles Kings if they aren't in the mood to reminisce about last season as they try to make history this season.
They had four more months than most Stanley Cup champions get to let their improbable title run sink in as they sat at home during the NHL lockout. They all had their days with the Cup, received their championship rings and raised the championship banner. They squeezed every ounce of juice from that fruitful postseason as possible and now they're looking for a refill, not a reminder.
But this is still Hollywood, where they're always more interested in producing familiar sequels to blockbusters rather than creating new, original hits. So as Sutter and his players stood in front of reporters after Friday's 2-1 over the St. Louis Blues at Staples Center to advance to the Western Conference semifinals, they were routinely asked to compare this postseason to last year's.
If there's one thing this grueling six-game series taught us, it's that this postseason is nothing like last year.
In fact, it couldn't be more different. Forget about a sequel. This is like following a romantic comedy with an action thriller.
"Everyone knows we're defending," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "Last year we came in as the 8 seed and I don't think anyone outside this room had us beating Vancouver. Other teams know now that they can't take us lightly."
Just the talk of last season in the Kings' locker room after the game caused center Anze Kopitar to sigh and roll his eyes like someone being asked to re-tell an old story he got tired of telling a long time ago.
"Last year was last year, and it doesn't matter what happened," Kopitar said. "We certainly gained some experience from that, but it doesn't matter what happened last year. We have to look ahead and get ready for the next series now."
The Kings will tell you that last year's playoff run wasn't as easy as it looked. They had to become the first 8-seed in NHL history to defeat the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds just to get to the Stanley Cup finals, then became the first team of any seed to win the Cup after beating the top three seeds.
Then again, they made it look easy by taking a 3-0 lead in every series. They didn't lose two straight games in the postseason or a single road game until the finals. This year, however, that's exactly how the Kings opened up the playoffs.
Not only did the Kings fall behind 2-0 in the series, they were behind 2-0 in Game 4 at Staples Center as the Blues had visions of closing out the series in five in St. Louis. But the Kings came back to win, 4-3, and went on to finish the series in six games. And unlike last season, when they won 10 straight on the road in the playoffs, the Kings might finally be comfortable playing at Staples Center. Including the regular season, the Kings have now won 10 straight at home. Their Game 5 win in St. Louis actually broke an eight-game road losing streak.
Nevertheless, it may have taken them a couple of extra games at the start, but for the second straight season, the Kings eliminated the Blues at Staples Center after beating them four straight times, just like their series sweep in 2012.
"We have a lot of experience putting ourselves in holes if you look at our team historically," Brown said. "Holes in the standings, holes in individual games, holes in periods, but we have the type of group in here that comes back.
"Part of that is attributed to the fact we've been together for years. There's a few of us that have played together for five years and that goes a long way when you get down into the trenches and you have to battle out and you have that trust there, regardless of where you're at. You know when you can lean on each other when you get into a tough spot."
Brown has been with the Kings for the past decade, but he has been playing with guys like Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Matt Greene and Jarret Stoll for five years or more. He didn't have to look too far in the locker room after the game to find someone he had gone to battle with when the Kings were trying to find their way a couple of years ago, as they failed to get past Vancouver and San Jose in the first round.
They've grown over the past three seasons into a team that doesn't so much relish the pressure of the postseason as it excels at handling it better than most thanks largely to their even-keeled coach who hates talking about a playoff series as ... well ... a series.
"We don't look at it as a series," Sutter said. "We look at it as one game. Everybody talks about the series and everybody talks about last year, which really has no bearing on anything. You literally play one game at a time."
As cliché as it may sound, it's a mindset the Kings bought into since last season and have carried on into this postseason. That's a big reason why there wasn't a big letdown when the Kings went up two games last year and didn't suffer a letdown when they fell behind by two games this year.
"We try to simplify each game," said Kings left winger Dustin Penner, who rung up the buzzer-beating, winning goal at the end of the second period. "We think about the first five minutes, the first shift, the last five minutes, things like that to set small goals. You try not think about the score and the series. That comes from the coaching staff."
After the game, even Sutter admitted it wasn't always an easy mindset to have this series or even this season as the Kings came back from a slow start to make the playoffs and continue their quest of becoming the first team to repeat as Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
"It's not easy to come back, not many teams will do it," Sutter said. "The best part of our team is it doesn't matter if we're down 2-0 or up 2-0, we always have the mindset of taking care of the next game and not the series. But it's not easy. It's not easy making the playoffs as the defending champions and winning rounds as the defending champions. It's not easy. There's a lot of pressure on our players and they've handled it really well."
The pressure only increases with each round and Sutter said the Kings didn't win anything by getting past the first round of the playoffs.
"I don't think you get much for winning four games," Sutter said. "Other than tomorrow off."
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