Kings’ Kopitar on Stadium Series win: ‘It’s nice to come out on top’
The reality show cameras, the concerts, the fireworks, the crowd of 70,000-plus simultaneously shark chomping, a tie game underneath the lights of a glittering stadium and a potential playoff spot hanging in the balance.
It all made for an absolutely electric atmosphere. And it also made for a lot of pressure.
When Marian Gaborik rocketed a shot into the back of the net four minutes into the third period, the whole place short circuited. It was the Kings’ plan all along, and under the lights and the pressure, they executed that plan, beating the San Jose Sharks 2-1 in Saturday night’s Stadium Series game at Levi’s Stadium.
Now that it’s over, the Kings can leave behind the hoopla and go home in playoff position.
"It’s two points on the line every night. Not that there is more on the line now than there is any other division game." Kings’ coach Darryl Sutter said. "This is a division game, it’s a division rival. It’s a road game for us."
This was a business trip for LA. As Sutter said, just another road game. That approach was successful.
Coming in riding a six-game winning streak and fighting for their lives in the playoff race, the two points on the line would seem monumental in any barn. Factor in the significance of a Stadium Series game and it could feel like an even bigger mountain climb.
That Gabbo game winner. https://t.co/fb0wYJeEnl
— LA Kings (@LAKings) February 22, 2015
But perspective made the extraordinary circumstances seem merely ordinary.
"In the position that we were, you’ve got to put everything aside," Kings center Anze Kopitar said. "Like the venue, and pretty much the whole event. And I thought we did a good job of that and it’s definitely nice to come out on top."
This was far different from the Stadium Series game the Kings hosted last year at Dodger Stadium. They faced the Anaheim Ducks, ultimately eliminating any sense of a home crowd. It was the first outdoor game in California and it generated a different type of attention and allure that this game did.
"It’s not easy to play in these games," Sutter said. "it’s a totally different process for players in terms of preparation and especially with playing them in the fair weather part of it because you’re practicing the night before, where their routine is usually early the day before or mid-afternoon and game day …
"There is no advantage to anybody."
The Kings didn’t even score a goal in last year’s game, a 3-0 loss. It was an embarrassing performance on a big stage that they weren’t eager to repeat.
And they didn’t: The Kings weathered a strong second-period storm from the Sharks but ultimately stuck to their own, physical yet technical style of play. Cute won’t cut it on outdoor ice, and later in the periods when the puck wouldn’t go the way it normally would around the boards or across the ice, LA stayed patient and found ways to adjust.
Neutral-zone play was crucial, and the Kings commanded it. Gaborik’s goal developed in the neutral zone when he swiped the puck from Brent Burns. He didn’t try anything fancy, there was no attempt to elude his defender, he simply made a smart hockey play and it paid off in the form of a game-winner.
"We knew the ice wasn’t that great, we tried to forecheck Burns," he said. "Burnsy had the puck on the stick, just picked it off of him and tried to go. And the shot went in."
It’s not a surprise as to why the interest surrounding the Kings is so high — two Stanley Cups bookending a Western Conference Final will draw some attention — but this isn’t an exceptionally media-hungry team.
The entire team is spread out amongst a few small beach towns where they enjoy relative anonymity. They seemed more than ready to bid farewell to the EPIX film crew and the extra media members that have followed them in recent weeks.
Leading up to this game, the spotlight has a little too bright for their liking.
"Two is enough for me," said Kings’ captain Dustin Brown. "It’s a lot of buildup and there’s a lot that goes into it. It’s an exciting game, but I think our personality, with the group of guys in here, we’re pretty low key and this is the other end of the spectrum."
A once-in-a-lifetime experience for some, twice-in-a-lifetime for many of them, the Kings came, soaked in the experience and effectively put it behind them.