The last time Tobias Rieder played in a playoff game, at any level, was for the Kitchener Rangers. Five years ago.
“My last year in junior [hockey],” Rieder said. “So it’s been a while.”
Adrian Kempe has played in minor league playoff games but, like Rieder and a handful of other Kings, has never experienced what’s coming up. The next postseason game for them and Alex Iafallo will be their first in the NHL, and the same goes for defensemen Paul LaDue, Oscar Fantenberg and Kevin Gravel.
It’s a steep contrast from the Kings’ leadership ring of Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Jonathan Quick, who have combined for 434 playoff games and two Stanley Cup titles. While that older front pulls the Kings, they will also have to rely on the aforementioned inexperienced players when their first-round series against the Vegas Golden Knights gets underway Wednesday at T-Mobile Arena.
The intensity of playoff hockey is part of the sport’s lore. Each play and, more important, each mistake is magnified, and players often play through injuries they wouldn’t in the regular season. It also makes each win that much more precious.
“I’ve heard from almost everybody,” Iafallo said. “It’s the fun part of it. They always said the most fun time of the year is right now and getting ready for each game.”
Iafallo skated on the top line again Tuesday and appears on track to return from an upper-body injury. He will play a significant role, along with Rieder and Kempe, as top-nine forwards trying to counter Vegas’ quick-strike attack. LaDue and Fantenberg could also be called upon on the back end because Jake Muzzin practiced as an extra defenseman and might not be ready for Game 1; Fantenberg was paired with Doughty, and LaDue with Dion Phaneuf.
“I think it’s good, especially when I know I can play against those guys,” Kempe said. “[Coach John Stevens] and those guys trust me against their top guys. I think that grows in my confidence in the game as well.”
Rieder never made it to the postseason in three seasons with the Arizona Coyotes. As a trade addition, he got thrust into a playoff race with the Kings and said “I kind of think I know what to expect.”
Stevens said the final slew of games, with playoff seeding at stake, helped his younger players get a feel for postseason play. All they have to do is look at Kopitar and the like to set the example.
“Even though it’s their first experience at this type of atmosphere, I think we’ve got enough veteran leadership in the locker room to help these guys,” Stevens said. “But we’ve talked long and hard now on how hard it is to win games this time of year. I think it will go up another level and our guys are well aware of that.”
Christian Folin has limited experience in the playoffs — two games with the Minnesota Wild last season. He said the way that Kopitar, Doughty, Brown and Quick prepare every day has been a blueprint for getting himself primed for the playoffs. Their long-tested mettle was a factor in Folin’s signing with the Kings in the summer.
“I think this group has really got something,” Folin said. “There’s something really special in this locker room. There’s a lot of guys that have won it before.”
But for all the talk about the first-ever playoff game for Vegas, this is the first playoff game for the Kings in two years, and Kopitar alluded to it when asked about his individual play.
“I’ve been here before,” Kopitar said. “I’ve had some decent success in the playoffs. But right now it’s about winning games. It doesn’t matter how you do it. It’s a matter of winning. That’s what so good about this time of year. I don’t think as much focus is on individual numbers and skill. It usually comes down to the team. That’s what we feel very strongly about. That’s always been our M.O.”
KEYS TO THE SERIES
Keys to the first-round best-of-seven series between the Kings and Vegas Golden Knights.
1.STOP VEGAS IN TRANSITION: The Golden Knights thrive off offense in transition and have the depth to keep it going all game long. The Kings need to avoid feeding into this and that starts with puck management in both ends.
2. QUICK VS. FLEURY: Goalies Jonathan Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury have five Stanley Cup rings and 143 playoff wins between them. Both teams can bank on that experience to get them through playoff duress and perhaps steal a game. So who will blink first?
3. AVOID EARLY DEFICITS: The Kings have a minus-27 goal differential in the first period, second-worst in the NHL (as opposed to plus-39 in the third period), a trend that can bite them in the playoffs. Vegas’ 79 goals in the first period were tied for seventh-most in the NHL.