Sutter as Sherpa

Andrew Bensch makes excellent points in his analysis of the two teams entering the San Jose-Los Angeles series. But he forgets the crucial intangible of coaching and mental belief.

The Sharks had to know that either they or the Vancouver Canucks, whoever lost their first-round series, was in for a blowing up. The Canucks have failed to meet their lofty achievement of a whiff of the Cup since losing two years ago. The Sharks are everyone’s favorite whipping boy this time of year as people happily predict another collapse. (Not those in the Bay Area, of course.)

Having survived that, San Jose has to have checked “Don’t get the coach fired” off their list of to-dos or their measuring rod for playoff success. And in truth, if they lose to the Kings, then the excuse is ready-made: we got beaten by the team who a lot of people picked to repeat. What’s the shame in that? In some measure, they’re in a can’t-lose situation. They’re better than the worst of the playoff squads already, and they’re facing what might be the best of them.

“We’ve got an experienced group in here. These guys know how to get it done,” Justin Williams said as he smiled and nodded toward the other corners of the dressing room after the Kings won one of the St. Louis games last week. His comment points not just at his fellow players, but towards the fresh memory of last year’s miracle run, which can be repeated (perhaps not quite in 16-4 fashion) this season. And it must be easier to climb a mountain a second time having done it once. Knowing the crucible of injury, scrutiny, and pressure that are the playoffs and that must feel like they go on forever if you’re a player, it has to be easier a second time around.

Think about the 4,000 people who have climbed Everest. Why do they pay the same sherpa guides over and over to accompany them? Because they’ve been there before, and they can anticipate the problems.

For San Jose, a long cup run is an unknown thing, as, obviously, they’ve never made it out of the third round. So while they might feel confident in their chances because they have a good team, and because they so easily handled Vancouver, their x-factor is that they can’t control what the Kings do, mentally.

And that’s where Darryl Sutter comes in. Whatever spell he’s woven, whatever trance he’s got his players in, he’s their sherpa guide. He knows the path. He’s been there with them, but he stands above them, a voice of reason which delivers a consistent message. That can be boiled down to something like this: We play for today. He said roughly this the other night after winning against the Blues: “Up 2-0 or down 0-2, you don’t think about that. You play the game you’re playing today.”

In other words, the Kings are not trying to win the Cup, or defend it, today. They’re just playing a game against San Jose. If they win, that will be forgotten. If they lose, similarly. But when they win four, they’ll move on. Only they won’t think about that, either. They’ll just start again, game by game. Eventually, the win will be their final one, and they’ll have that Cup again, if all works out. Sutter has his players so bought into his way of doing things that there’s no wavering.

I’m not saying that nobody will beat the Kings. They still need to up their scoring from all parts of the lineup, hope that Carter can stay as good as he’s been, and rely on Quick. In fact, I was of the opinion that a more dissimilar team might give them trouble that they won’t have with the Sharks. Maybe that dissimilar team is Chicago, who they could meet if they dispense with San Jose. At that point, Sutter’s message, and his seeming way of keeping the players’ singular focus on what he wants it to be on, could waver. Until then, it’s not likely that they’ll be defeated, because their style matches up well with San Jose’s talents. It’s only when they’re forced to do other than what they have been–playing a short game, battling for pucks, sticking tight to the men they’re checking–that their weaknesses will come out.

The Sharks will win a game or two, but this baby’s not going seven, and it’s not going to be possible to watch NHL hockey in the Bay Area, except on TV, in a couple of weeks’ time.

Watch this space for coverage of the LA Kings’ home games. Follow me on twitter @growinguphockey.


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  1. #LAKings Sutter as Sherpa (Inside Hockey) - May 15, 2013

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