With the way the LA Kings romped through the playoffs from eighth seed last year, you would think that it wouldn’t matter to them whether they had home ice advantage. Funny, then, that players and coach both said before Saturday’s game with the Sharks that they wanted the fourth seed. The trouble was, by the time the game began, fourth was out of the question, and the outcome of their game would decide only one thing: which team would face St. Louis, and which Vancouver.
Zoom to the end of the game. The Sharks lost, and Joe Thornton said, “At least we know where we’re going. We’re going up to Van.” He said that with nothing more than that at stake, “You want to win every game you play, but you don’t want to get hurt. We tried our best, here. The Kings were better than us. Now we know who we’re going to play. We’re going to go up to Van and win some games.”
As for a prediction, Thornton said of the Canucks, “They compete hard. They won the Northwest Division for a reason. They’ve got a real good team. We’ve got a big challenge on our hands.” Canned stuff, said without any facial expression except, perhaps, weariness. Is this the year that the Sharks finally pay off their promise, or is it another early out? And what if they had been the ones to draw the Blues? The Kings would have had last year’s first-round opponent again.
But they’re going to take on the Blues. From the Kings’ point of view, Kopitar said, “We know what we’re getting. They have some big bodies, and they play a heavy game, so we have some big bodies. We’re very similar. We’ve played them enough in the past season.”
The Kings have won more than a handful of games against St. Louis in a row (7-0), which to some is a problem, in that the odds have to come back around eventually. But that means little, as Coach Sutter would say later in the evening. And statistically, the teams are a near dead heat. The goal differential is a little better for LA, though both teams have let in 114 goals this year, because the Kings have scored seven more.
The Kings are 10th in the power play, the Blues 12th. But the Blues are a little better on the PK, seventh in the league versus 10th for the Kings. Both teams have goalies that are playing at a high level. And the Kings, if you listen to the way that their players repeat the message that the coach offers, are entering the playoffs unified.
Kopitar said there was no disappointment in not getting home ice. “We came up a point short, just like we did last year. You still have to win four games. It doesn’t matter where you win them.”
Coach Sutter later said, “That’s two years in a row that we missed it by one point, so if you think about it, how close it is through the course of the season. There was a point in January when people said . . . you’re in fourteenth or fifteenth place, how are you going to catch up?” Suspiciously similar language? Not so suspicious—it means that Kopitar is listening and buying in.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick differed on that point. “You want to play at home. Sleep in your own bed as opposed to traveling and sleeping in a hotel. You’d rather play at home, obviously.”
He also said of the Kings’ recent record against the Blues, “We’ve gotten a couple of bounces along the way. That’s not going to play into the first game. We both start 0-0, and we’re going to have to outwork them. They have some big forwards, strong forwards that go really hard to the net.” He felt like they would bring a similar challenge as any team in the top eight would.
He went on, “We weren’t worried about the result tonight. We weren’t focused on the result as much as how we played the sixty minutes.”
Both Quick and Sutter were fast to toss the season out the window. “It doesn’t matter how I’m playing right now,” the netminder said. “Tuesday. It’s how I play Tuesday.”
Sutter started his press conference by saying, “It’s over,” indicating that there was no point in measuring the accomplishments of the season as a guide to the playoffs. When later asked about all the wins against the Blues, he said, “Regular seaon, it’s over, and it really has no bearing on anything. Zero. Don’t know what it means. We could have just as well played Vancouver, and they kicked the shit out of us this year, and I’d be confident playing them too.”
Sutter resisted every attempt to compare the playoffs to the regular year. When asked about the team’s horrible road record of late (0-6), he said, “Over and done. The season is over and done. We had a great season, to be quite honest.”
As he said this, the Kings did not officially know whether it would be Tuesday or not that their first series would start, although they will fly to Missouri Sunday anyway. Sutter talked about that. When asked whether they were going tomorrow, he said, “Sunday, what else are we going to do?” When reminded that the schedule is not posted, he lightened up. “Better to be safe than sorry. We get as much info as you guys do,” he said.
The Kings started well Saturday, then let the Sharks come back at them. They then took the game over with only a few lapses on the way to a 3-2 win. Numbers-wise, they ended with more shots, 27-25, fewer hits, 41-26, and a much better faceoff percentage, 60%. They did not capitalize on their single power play, and the gave the Sharks no man-advantage situations. Thus the game, while important in one way, really isn’t something to measure by.
The players wouldn’t say it, but the fact that home ice was not at stake, as it had been before the Blues won their game earlier in the day, made it essentially a lame duck. And now that it’s over, it you take Sutter’s point of view seriously, neither it nor the 47 before it mean anything. Sutter did say, jokingly and on the way out the door, “I’m happier than 14 other teams.” And without having to say it, everyone in the room was reminded that this time of last season, a team nobody thought could do anything was starting its romp through four rounds, losing just four games.
Sutter explained the way his team is playing now, and its strengths. “The depth part . . . and being able to mix is maybe something that will help us, and that’s what we’ve been doing. I really don’t know. It’s going to be a whole different . . . just the way the season was, it was so compact and you’ll probably see that again” in the playoffs. He said that both his team and the Blues are built for the playoffs, and that the Blues won’t forget last year.
And he said that the Blues are a much improved team from the group which went out 4-0 last year in round two. Leopold and Bouwmeester add depth, and their goalie situation is strong, the coach indicated. “I think [their goalie situation] was affecting their team,” he said.
This year it’s different. “We’re not going to catch anybody by surprise now,” he finished.
Mike Richards did not play much late because he has been ill.
Matt Greene is day-to-day with something unrelated to his back problems.
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