CHICAGO — Darryl Sutter took a page from Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau’s book this week when he inserted defenseman Willie Mitchell into Game 1 of the Western Conference finals as a surprise game-time decision.
The Kings’ veteran D-man hadn’t played since April 28 in Game 6 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals against the Sharks. Mitchell was day-to-day with a lower-body injury throughout the series against Anaheim and Matt Greene filled his position.
Mitchell skated Saturday twice in the two days leading up to the first game in Chicago, but Sutter was adamant that he was not ready to play. That changed with a pregame conversation the morning of Game 1.
"I talked to Darryl this morning. I was itching for last series, but it was kind of a quick turnaround after my injury, so I didn’t have many practices," Mitchell said. "So this morning, I chatted with him and I was in."
Unhappy with being forced to sit out the last round, Mitchell wanted to repay his teammates for getting him to a position where there is hockey left to play.
"My teammates gave me this opportunity," he said. "I didn’t play in the last round, and it was a hard-fought series against the Ducks. They gave me the opportunity to get in here and be a part of this.
Mitchell and Jeff Schultz cycled in taking short shifts with Slava Voynov. He played just under 17 minutes with two hits and a plus-1 rating. Sutter felt he was "fine" but Mitchell himself was full of adrenaline.
"It’s always tough this time of year," he said. "Last year, I sat out a lot more. There’s hurt and injured, and when you’re out and can’t play, it’s maybe a little bit easier. When you’re injured, it’s like you’re right there and you can maybe play. That’s when it pulls on the strings a little bit harder."
Greene played the first two games of the first round before being scratched the rest of the way through until Game 7, when Mitchell was ruled out. Greene played well against Anaheim but the Kings ultimately made the decision to stick with Jeff Schultz to skate with Voynov and Alec Martinez.
Mitchell insists his injury was not an issue. He’s ready to play out the rest of the series and more.
"I felt pretty good, actually," Mitchell said. "They say the first one is the easiest, because you’re so full of adrenaline. It’s the second and third, coming off a couple weeks, where you’ve got to play a smarter game. I felt good. Hopefully I can continue to build on my game."