Kings’ turnaround has been an emotional journey
A couple of days off between playoff games might be too many for the people who play them and the media who cover them.
Players like to get into a rhythm of playing every other day. Writers and broadcasters like that too, because the longer the time between games the harder it can be to find fresh stories to tell. So they ask the same questions, with minor variations. As a result, players, usually reluctant to say anything that might end up as motivational fodder on the opposing team’s bulletin board, often lapse into clichés.
The Kings will have a couple days between their 1-0 playoff victory over the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday and the possible series clincher on Wednesday at Staples Center, which gives the media more airtime and space to fill. So there were a lot of questions Monday about the fourth game being the hardest to win and all that.
The Kings obliged with some stock answers, but they also offered some insight on how their season has turned around after hitting a psychological and competitive low point in December.
Winger Dustin Brown said players always believed the team was better than its early record but there were times when their confidence wavered, especially when goals were tough to come by. In late November and early December, they played 14 straight games in which they scored two goals or fewer in regulation, a stretch that contributed to the dismissal of Terry Murray as their coach.
“You had those moments,” Brown said Monday. “You talk about that stretch where we only scored x amount of goals in x amount of games. I think that’s one of those times when it was a really frustrating time but we were still finding ways to win, whether it was shootouts or 1-0 wins. We kind of stayed in the hunt all year long.
“From a team standpoint, I think there were some big games maybe the other way, where we understood the situation and were thinking, ‘If we lose this game it might be the end,’ type things. So it was a motivating factor, I think.”
He said some of the most pivotal games for the Kings were the four road contests they played after Murray was fired and before Darryl Sutter took over as coach.
“The road trip right after Terry got let go was a pretty emotional time for everyone involved,” Brown said. “It was a four-game road trip and we went 2-2. But it was one of those times that we needed two big wins.”
When Sutter took over he said his priority was simply to get the Kings back into a playoff position, and that was touch-and-go for a while. But he was able to more clearly define players’ roles and allowed them to be slightly more aggressive offensively, changes they easily adopted. They finished 29th in the NHL in goals per game, but because their defense, penalty killing and goaltending were so solid and because Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams stepped up when they were most needed, the Kings moved into the top eight in the West and were competing for the Pacific division title until they lost their last two games.
“I think winning breeds confidence,” Sutter said. “We’ve talked about it, about the young players using their skill set, being able to use it more. It’s still about teamwork and individual skill and how you balance it. If you don’t have enough of one or enough of the other then you’ve got no chance. So we snuck in and just tried to hang around.”
It helped that the veterans on the team readily bought into his strategy.
“I think it takes some time,” Sutter said. “But I think you know that coming in with the quality of those guys, in terms of what kind of people they were, that’s way more important, right? Because they have to be able to sell it, sell the program too. It’s not about one person or one player. It has to be as a group.”
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