Unsung contributions lifting Kings in playoffs
Darryl Sutter has been through the rodeo enough times to pinpoint the areas in which the Los Angeles Kings’ second round series against the St. Louis Blues will be decided.
“Goaltenders, special teams, top players, unsung heroes and discipline,” Sutter listed. “Write it down and don’t forget it.”
“It’s true. It’s out of the hockey bible, and I’ve seen it for 35 years live.”
Los Angeles and St. Louis are two similar teams with incredibly solid, physical defenses and game-changing goaltenders in net. They were 1-2 in GAA in the regular season (a combined 3.96 between the two teams — the only two teams the NHL whose combined GAA is less than 4). And following each club’s five-game series win in which they each allowed only eight goals, the trend points towards scores resembling European soccer fixtures rather than a Philadelphia-Pittsburgh first-round matchup.
Of Sutter’s five-point plan above, it was the play of the club’s unsung heroes that provided the clearest advantage in their first-round upset of Vancouver. Once again the Kings will need to call on timely goals similar to the ones provided by Dustin Penner, Trevor Lewis, Brad Richardson and Jarret Stoll, who combined to outscore the Canucks’ third- and fourth-line forwards 5-2.
“I haven’t seen it too many years in the past where you can have one line, or a couple players or one goaltender win you the championship, and that’s just the bottom line. That’s just the way it is,” Stoll said. “You’ve got to have guys that have roles and are proud of their roles and take pride in doing their job and doing their job well. Everybody has a different skill set. Darryl says it all the time. You’ve got Anze Kopitar as probably our most skilled player, and then you’ve got guys like myself, or Trevor Lewis, or Dustin Penner, or whoever that have a different skill set. You’ve got to use that to your advantage in the best possible way. Some guys kill penalties. Some guys take faceoffs. Some guys are blocking shots or being physical. All those things put together make up a really good, strong team. If you don’t have that kind of stuff, it’s tough to win in the playoffs. Those are the kind of things you need to win. If you have strong goaltending, like I said, timely goals, timely saves, and big special teams, and you put all those together, and that’s usually how a championship is won.
“I’ve never won a Stanley Cup, but you can just see from the teams in the past that have done it, that’s how it’s done.”
It was certainly evident the last time the Kings rallied for a playoff run that extended past the second round. In 1993, Gary Shuchuk scored a double-overtime Game 5 winner in Vancouver for a massive momentum shift in the second round. In Game 7 of the Campbell Conference Finals matchup against Toronto, Mike Donnelly scored a go-ahead goal with 3:51 remaining in the third period, part of an unsung effort that relied heavily on the contributions provided by Warren Rychel, Pat Conacher, Corey Millen, and other forwards who weren’t named Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille or Jari Kurri.
When asked, Stoll identified the way Sutter has been able to wring contributions out of all 20 players in the lineup.
“Making everybody feel like they’re just as important as our most skilled guy as say Kopitar or Quick, or whoever,” he answered. “You’ve got a guy like Colin Fraser, who I think has been playing great. Brad Richardson, [Jordan] Nolan, that so-called fourth line if you will — whatever you want to call them — the last few games for sure, they’ve probably been our best line. That kind of confidence that Darryl has in those guys, they gain confidence from that. You can see it on the ice — it’s fun to see that happen, and it is great for those guys to get that opportunity.”
Nolan’s physical play has allowed the rookie to slot in comfortably on a fourth line battling and forechecking role. While other rookies Dwight King and Slava Voynov experienced a growing pain here and there among the satisfactory minutes they provided against Vancouver, Nolan immediately clicked into his assignment alongside Fraser and Richardson and provided several disruptions in the Canucks’ attempts to bring the puck up the ice that resulted in scoring chances on Cory Schneider.
To defeat a Blues team that possesses six defensemen “significantly ahead against the team we just played,” as Sutter described Monday, Los Angeles will once again be relying upon the unsung contributions that so often tip the balance of a series one way or another. Considering that the Kings have long graded well in the goaltending and discipline contingents of Sutter’s five point plan, the fact that they received more from their special teams, top players and unsung skaters than the Canucks bears the early markings of a team capable of being the first L.A. squad to make a meaningful playoff run in the 18 seasons and 1,489 regular-season and playoff games that have elapsed since the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals.
“The group right now, right here, we want to make our own history and make our own story lines and follow through with what we feel is a really, really good team, and not let this chance slip away,” Stoll said. “We all know — we’ve heard it before from older guys that we’ve played with — that you never know when you’re going to get back to the playoffs and win a series, win two or three series and get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup.”
“We’ve got a lot of work to do ahead of us yet, but it was a big step for our organization, a big step for a lot of guys that had never won a series before.”