Willie Mitchell couldn't go on the road to be around his friends and hockey-playing colleagues. Nor could he feel comfortable going out to dinner when a playoff game was going on against St. Louis, San Jose or Chicago.
The prototypical stay-at-home defenseman had to … well, stay home last year.
"I was in L.A. But it was tough because the team didn't want me around the rink. I get that, I get that part of the program," said Mitchell, who missed all of last season because of knee issues.
"Because I couldn't help the team out. It was where the guys would look over their shoulder, 'Oh, if we had him,' instead of focusing on what we've got and moving forward.
"You want to watch and then you don't want to watch the games. It was eating me up inside. It's not like you can go out for dinner either because if someone sees you out for dinner, it's like, 'What's this guy doing out for dinner? His team is playing.'"
Mitchell was talking on the phone from the Kings' charter a few minutes before it departed Los Angeles for Chicago on Tuesday morning. Game 5 of the Western Conference finals is Wednesday at the United Center, with the Kings holding a 3-1 series lead against the Blackhawks.
His return is one of many reasons the Kings have reversed this series, so far, from the one in 2013. They had trailed the Blackhawks 3-1 and then lost Game 5 in double overtime, and Chicago went on to win the Stanley Cup.
This time, there is the looming factor of a healthy Drew Doughty, who was playing defense on a bad ankle last year. The Kings have increased depth down the middle, sparked by the playoff scoring leader, center Anze Kopitar, and the Blackhawks don't have many answers in that department after captain Jonathan Toews.
Additionally, Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick is outplaying his Chicago counterpart, Corey Crawford, by a sizable margin.
"[Kings Coach] Darryl Sutter is definitely right — you get nothing for three [wins]. It'll hopefully be a short road, if we do it right," Mitchell said. "But there's a lot of work. They're a really good team, obviously a very good offensive team.
"That's my job to play against the top two lines and slow them down as much as possible with Slava [Voynov] this series. We've done a pretty good job so far. But they're a team that can make you look silly in a hurry."
For their part, the Blackhawks overcame a 3-1 deficit in the second round last season against the Detroit Red Wings, so they know it is possible. They also will have the advantage of being at home Wednesday, playing in the league's loudest arena, where they had not lost this postseason until Game 2 against the Kings.
"We were in the same position last year," Chicago forward Patrick Kane said Monday after Game 4. "You can look back at that and say, 'We came out and were successful, so why can't we do it again?'
"It's tough with the position we're in right now, but at the same time we still feel good about our team in here and we all know we've done it before. You have to have that confidence of trying to win the next game and see what happens."
After Game 4, Sutter said the Kings needed to be better five on five. The Kings have been fairly disciplined during this series, and when they have taken penalties they've killed them off, giving up only two power-play goals in 13 opportunities.
"When they [the Blackhawks] are taking penalties, we need to capitalize on them," Doughty said. "Our PK [penalty killing] was really good again. Special teams was huge. I think we need to clean up five on five."
The early penalty kills in Game 4 set the tone for the Kings.
"It shows you how big special teams are this time of year," Mitchell said. "A couple of big kills takes the wind out of their sails. You come back and have a power play that executes and all of a sudden the wind is at your back, instead of blowing stiff at your face."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times