The Kings' playoff run two years ago was so neat and tidy and efficient. They won the first three games in all four rounds, used the same six defensemen in every game, and needed only 20 contests to win the Stanley Cup.
Their current run has been far more dramatic — and more taxing.
They went to the limit in each of their first three rounds and won Game 7 on the road. They've played six overtime games, including wins in the first two games of the Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers last week at Staples Center. Those were their 22nd and 23rd games of this postseason tournament.
As the Final shifts to Madison Square Garden on Monday, Kings Coach Darryl Sutter is dealing with some tired hockey players — including defenseman Drew Doughty, who played 41 minutes 41 seconds in their 5-4 double-overtime victory over the Rangers on Saturday. Fatigue and injuries on defense, two factors Sutter didn't have to deal with in 2012, have become major considerations for him as he leads the Kings closer to their ultimate goal.
Sutter has done a masterful job juggling his defense corps through injuries to Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr. After saying Regehr probably would play against the Rangers in Game 2, Sutter went with his gut and kept the lineup the same. The question will arise again Monday, and it will be interesting to see what Sutter decides.
If he brings Regehr back, the likely odd-man out would be Matt Greene, who continues to play the fewest minutes of the Kings' defensemen though he had an outstanding performance in Game 7 of the Kings' West finals victory over the Chicago Blackhawks.
Sutter said Sunday he is fortunate to have enough options to deploy while managing players' minutes through long series and, now, three straight overtime games.
"Three in a row. A lot of hockey," Sutter said. "There's always lots of talk about depth and those things. Somebody is on a little bit of a roll or not. They'll talk about having depth, not having depth.
"Depth only matters when you win. You need depth when you get to overtime games and games after overtime games. We've managed to do that. We've moved guys around. Obviously, guys get banged up and things like that. But that is your biggest issue always in a series. It's not just playing guys, it's getting the quality, getting good minutes out of them."
He has gotten quality minutes out of Greene, whose slowness has become painfully apparent. There's no gain in speed if Regehr replaces him, but Regehr should be fresher and that could help against a Rangers team sure to be revved up in front of the home fans.
The return of Mitchell from a muscle pull also has been crucial to the Kings' success. He missed all of last season because of problems with the knee he injured during the summer of 2012, and without his physical presence, penalty-killing skills and steadying influence on defense partner Slava Voynov, the Kings were depleted in several areas and lost to Chicago in five games in the West finals.
"We missed him last year, him being out. It changed the dynamic of the back end," Kings captain Dustin Brown said Saturday. "Where I think he makes a very big difference obviously is his defensive coverage, [penalty killing]. He's very hard to play against down low."
When Mitchell chips in with an assist or gets his strong shot on net, the Kings get a valuable offensive dimension. He scored his second career playoff power-play goal Saturday — he has scored no power-play goals during the regular season — and it was his shot that Brown deflected past Henrik Lundqvist on Saturday for the winner.
Mitchell was injured during Game 6 of the Kings' first-round series against San Jose and missed the entire second-round series against the Ducks but returned for the West finals and was plus-6 defensively in that series. He had a goal and an assist against the Rangers on Saturday in Game 2, and also flubbed a pass from goaltender Jonathan Quick behind the net for a turnover that became a Rangers goal.
"He's obviously a big body back there that is a big piece of our defense group," center Anze Kopitar said Saturday. "I think for Slava to play with him and have a sense of safety back there . . . Willie is not known for his offensive powers but more making plays coming out of our zone, and they've been working really well together."
Mitchell's maturity and level-headedness make him a good fit in a diverse defense corps. Asked Saturday if he expects his performance in Game 2 to become a classic, he laughed.
"I don't know about that," he said. "I'm worried about the fourth one. We've got a lot of work to do here. You get nothing for two, as our coach says."
Sutter is right about that, and about how he has kept the defense together.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times