In a very odd NHL season, staying on even keel worked for Kings
Introspection and navel-gazing are not Darryl Sutter’s favorite activities. The Kings’ coach is blunt, more likely to look ahead than to over-analyze the past in search of great cosmic meaning.
So, when asked about the peaks and valleys his team experienced during this lockout-shortened season, Sutter was typically direct.
“There’s no highs and lows,” he said. “Highs and lows right now are for them guys that are 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. They have highs, they have lows.”
The Kings earned the No. 5 playoff seeding by beating the San Jose Sharks, 3-2, Saturday at Staples Center on second-period goals by Kyle Clifford and Slava Voynov and a third-period goal by Justin Williams, earning a standing ovation from the announced sellout crowd. The Kings (27-16-5) will open the playoffs this week against the Blues at St. Louis on a date to be determined. The sixth-seeded Sharks will face No. 3 Vancouver. The NHL is expected to release the full playoff schedule Sunday night.
The Kings reached the highest of highs last season when they won the Stanley Cup. That no team has repeated as champion since the Detroit Red Wings won in 1997 and 1998 underscores the difficulty of being the team that opponents target all season.
“When I played the defending champs before, you’d look at it and you’d circle it on the calendar,” center Anze Kopitar said. “It was a challenge for us and I think we did a fairly good job.”
Sutter’s plan for this 48-game season was simple: reach the playoffs and prepare his team to win four rounds again. The Kings climbed as high as fourth until they lost at Minnesota and Detroit last week, and St. Louis passed them to end their hopes of having home-ice advantage in the first round.
“There [were] stretches there when we didn’t have time to think because we were just playing and traveling and playing,” center Jarret Stoll said.
Maybe it was better that way.
“It probably was, in a sense, to sometimes just play the game because we needed to get our game back, get ourselves going again,” Stoll said. “It was a weird year.”
They started slowly. Goaltender Jonathan Quick, the playoff MVP, struggled to regain his mobility and sharpness after undergoing back surgery. His job was complicated by injuries to bruising defensemen Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, who had kept opponents accountable and balanced the defense.
Trade acquisitions Keaton Ellerby and Robyn Regehr have been solid replacements and rookie Jake Muzzin progressed well enough to play key minutes. “The reason we made the playoffs is because of Muzzin and Ellerby. Very simple,” Sutter said.
But Greene missed Saturday’s finale because of an undisclosed injury, emphasizing how fortunate the Kings were to get through last season’s playoffs with the same six defensemen playing every game.
On the whole, the Kings had some moments worth celebrating this season after they raised their Cup banner on Jan. 19.
An 11-3 surge from Feb. 11 through March 11, fueled by Jeff Carter’s explosive scoring, got them back into playoff contention. And during a recent 9-2-3 push they looked complete and deep enough to go far again. But scoring only one goal in losing to Minnesota and Detroit last week highlighted a vulnerable spot.
Kopitar led them in scoring for the sixth straight season but he had only 10 goals before Saturday and none in the preceding 15 games. Only Carter, with 26 goals, was a consistent scoring threat. Dustin Brown, suspended by the NHL for the final two games because of an illegal elbow to the head of Minnesota’s Jason Pominville, scored 18.
“Coming into this season you don’t know what to expect with the short season,” Kopitar said. “There was a lot of hockey played in a short period of time. It does wear down on you even if it’s a shortened season, but think we’ve done a fairly good job.”
Their power play and penalty killing ranked among the NHL’s top 10 and Quick has regained his old form.
In addition, the Kings were formidable at home, an interesting quirk after their exceptional road success during their Cup run.
Stoll said familiarity with playoff pressure should help a group that remained largely the same. But nothing is guaranteed.
“It’s never easy. Last year at times maybe we made it look easy but it wasn’t — and it’s not last year anymore,” he said. “It’s totally different. It’s going to be totally different deal, and that’s one thing we’ve got to realize and make sure we get.”
The preliminaries ended Saturday. Time to get ready.
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