Kings coach John Stevens didn’t pump his fist or pat himself on the back Wednesday night when he learned that his team had clinched a playoff spot when the St. Louis Blues lost to the Chicago Blackhawks.
Stevens watched the game — mainly because his son, Nolan, recently signed with the Blues — but he said Thursday his reaction afterward was subdued.
“I don’t tend to have an emotional outcry of theatrics,” said Stevens, who was hired to replace Darryl Sutter after the Kings missed the playoff last season, “but I was definitely excited to know that we’re going to be playing beyond the end of the regular season.”
Anze Kopitar wasn’t even aware of the moment the Kings’ return to the Stanley Cup playoffs became official.
“To be completely honest with you I didn’t pay attention to it. I had both kids at home so we were just playing and running around the house,” he said Thursday. “But then my phone started buzzing so I figured it was something about that. I kind of figured out that way.”
The Kings’ attitude Thursday morning was matter-of-fact as they prepared to face the Minnesota Wild later in the day at Staples Center. Clinching a postseason spot emphasized for Kopitar and Dustin Brown how dramatically the Kings have rebounded after subpar performances last season. But they consider qualifying for the playoffs to be the start of their journey, not the endpoint.
“I always knew I had it in me but yeah, last year was a disappointment but we all came back this year better and stronger and played better,” said Kopitar, whose career-best total of 91 points and his usual diligence on defense make him a strong candidate for most valuable player honors. “I think the team this year dug pretty deep and got in, and that’s the most important thing. Come first game we’ll be ready and everybody’s excited. It’s a fun time of year. …
“You’re happy to see that check mark next to the team’s name so it’s a good feeling, but at the same time you can’t get ahead of yourself. It’s business like usual today and I guess now we’re playing for seeding and who we’re going to face in the first round so, at the same time you just really want to get your team game in order and make sure that whenever the first game is going to be, you’re ready and at the top of your game.”
Stevens said he doesn’t plan to reduce the ice time of either Kopitar or Drew Doughty in the final two regular-season games in order to give them a respite before the playoffs begin next week.
“Going in this trying to win a game and use our personnel the way we think is best needed to win a hockey game,” Stevens said. “I told our guys this morning our whole honest conversation all the way along is you want to play in the playoffs. That’s the most important thing, but you want your team game at a point where you can have success in the playoffs. So there’s still a lot at stake. Positioning, there’s still a lot at stake here where we’re going to finish. There’s still a lot at stake in terms of how we’re playing heading into the playoffs.”
After the last game of last season, the second time the Kings had missed the playoffs in three seasons, Brown stood up in the locker room and told his teammates to remember how awful they felt at that moment and to let that drive them to never having to feel that way again. It must have worked — along with the coaching change and Stevens’ easing up on the defensive restrictions Sutter had imposed while not compromising anything defensively.
“I think it can be a very big motivator for a team that’s hungry, to understand,” Brown said. “Luckily we have a lot of guys in here who have won so they know what that feels like. They know what they’re missing out on every year. But again, we have a lot of young guys and it’s important for them. I came here a young guy and we didn’t make the playoffs,” he said, referring to having made his debut in the 2003-04 season but not reaching the playoffs until 2009-10. “And just having that hunger inside and remember … some guys hate losing more than they like winning.”
Doughty didn’t know until Thursday morning that the Ducks also clinched a playoff spot Wednesday night. The two teams have met only once in the playoffs, in the second round in 2014. The Kings won that series in seven games. “The Ducks are a good team, a team that we have a big rivalry with,” Doughty said. “Hopefully considering we both won’t be playing each other early on, hopefully we see them at some point.” It’s still possible that the Kings and the Ducks will meet in the first round, though it’s one of many possibilities.