Most LA Kings fans probably would never believe they could say this, but Thursday night in LA seemed like no big deal, despite the playoffs’ beginning at 7:30pm versus San Jose.
I mean, it’s not like the team is Montreal, with 24 Stanley Cup wins and who knows how many playoff appearances, let alone Finals appearances. But I remember back to 2001 and 2002, when it was a big freaking deal that the LA team even made the post-season. In the first of those years, they lost the first two games to Detroit, and it looked like they would do well to win a game.
But they came home and won, then ended up going to six games and winning a thrilling OT game in Game 6 at home to take the series. Detroit, remember, was at its peak then, having won two Cups in the 1990s and then going on to win another one in 2002 and one more in 2008. I was there as a spectator for Deadmarsh’s OT winner, and believe me, the place nearly exploded.
The Kings went on to lose in seven games to Colorado, a heart-breaker that really went down to the final period. They made the playoffs again the next year only to lose again in seven to those same Avs, and then things went dark. LA didn’t make the post-season again for eight years.
From those dismal days, it would have been impossible for anyone to believe that it would seem normal, expected, and almost mundane that they would make the playoffs. They did that for five years straight, from 2010-14, though the first of those seasons saw them dump a six-game series to Vancouver. The next year it was six games and out to San Jose.
It seemed like the old futility would be replaced by a new one, that of being the “just good enough to make it, not good enough to win it” team.
That all ended in 2012 with the first Stanley Cup. And now it’s just normal (despite missing the show last year) that the Kings should be in it. Or maybe, given the way they played in their opener, at home, it’s all too normal, which is not, in the end, a good thing.
San Jose is not a feared opponent. The buzz wasn’t huge outside at 5:30 when I rolled up to the arena. (Actually padded up, walking from the nearby train station. Yes, out-of-towners, we have transit in this city, and I’m not keen to pay $25 to park after driving the horrid streets to the game).
Is this complacency because the Kings are clearly better than San Jose? Shouldn’t be. The Sharks trailed LA by four points in the regular year, but outscored them by 14 goals (237-223). They also gave up more, (207 to 192), but look at the goal diff numbers—the Kings lead by just one.
So this is not likely to end the way 2014 did, when the San Jose team won three straight and then dumped four in a row. And that’s why the pundits aren’t picking anyone in five games. The least I’ve seen is six, with LA winning. Many have it at seven, same result. Nobody of note (correct me if I’m wrong @growinguphockey on twitter) has the team from the North winning the thing. Maybe the LA fans know this, and so they’re taking this as just, well, normal.
It was just like another game. Heck, there weren’t even any playoff cookies in the press box, like there have been in prior years. What gives?
There was, to be fair, a roar when the Kings came out to be introduced. More than usual. Way more. Partly, this was helped by the fact that every fan had a white towel printed with the team logo, and all 18,230 of them (plus) were waving those like madmen when the team hit the ice. The buzz quickly subsided.
And well it should have, because San Jose proved early that they aren’t going to roll over and die in the face of a bigger, meaner opponent. (Are they bigger? Actually no. The Kings and Sharks average 6”1’ each, and the LA team outweighs the San Jose one by a pound.)
They went down 1-0 with less than three minutes gone on a goal that deflected in off of a San Jose player after going off the stick of Muzzin way down close to the net. But they got it back about three minutes and change later, when the Kings were on the PK. The team ran around the box out of position, and San Jose got off a one-timer from the stick of Pavelski shading in from the blueline which beat Quick.
The Kings’ second goal was as lucky as their first. Carter went behind the San Jose goal line and took a backhand shot that hit a sliding Burns’s stick and then went off of Paul Martin’s leg, off the goalie’s back, and into the net.
But that didn’t happen until Burns put the Sharks ahead on a wrist shot that came from the point. The odd thing about the goal? Silence. He literally whipped it from the blueline off a faceoff that itself somehow didn’t have any sound.
Anyway, the game was 2-2. Did the San Jose team get discouraged? Not even when the went down 3-2 on a shorthanded goal. That happened courtesy of a lazy play from in front of the LA net by Joe Thornton, who tossed the puck out of the slot towards his own net and watched as Trevor Lewis went up ice two-on-one with it. He fired it up over the netminder off of the stick of Burns (again diving back). But San Jose tied it at 3-3 exactly 30 seconds later. The second period ended that way.
The winner came just 17 seconds into period three. Wait for a moment on that.
In general, the play could be characterized like this: LA was not skating, San Jose was. The Sharks are surprisingly good at controlling the puck down low, and they crashed it to the slot—not the net—repeatedly, shooting from out there. The shots by the end were an enemic 23 SJ and 24 LA, but there were outstanding saves on both sides.
Not enough for Sutter of the Kings, though, who commented after, “They scored three or four goals on 23 shots. We’ve got to be better than that.”
The winning goal, said Sutter, was a failure of center on center. He said that his best guys were not on their game, and this goal is just one example. Here’s what happened: Pavelski took it off the boards and went around the net, Kopitar chasing, then whipped it into the far side of the net. Again Sutter: “Close game, a couple of face-off goals. Center lost center on the winning goal.” He thought that his team adjusted well in the second period.
DeBoer disagreed, saying, “We fell behind 1-0 and 3-2 and both times we bounced back. I think we played a good road game.” He carried on, “For us to respond immediately [to Lewis’s goal] was key. I thought there were a lot of moments like that in the game. I liked our game. I thought we deserved to win, and we found a way to win.” He complemented his team’s forecheck. “We penned them in for large parts of the game. I thought we looked fast, so I liked our game.”
Sutter said that his top players and San Jose’s match up, but the depth of the lineup is what will make the difference, especially if there are few shots. “Then it might be your goaltenders,” he said, obviously not happy with Quick’s play.
Martin Jones, for his part, refused to get drawn into Quick-vs-Jones questions regarding having been in LA earlier and possibly learning from Quick. He said he was nervous early but that he felt more comfortable as the game went on.
“We’re playing the LA Kings. That’s the biggest thing. It’s not about me or Quickie. It’s, uh, we’re trying to win a Stanley Cup here. Anytime you can get a win on the road, it’s huge. Our motivation is to win a Stanley Cup. He’s proven he’s one of the best goaltenders, especially in the playoffs, so we’ve got our work cut out for us ahead.”
DeBoer also did the typical genuflection at the end. “We know the next game’s not going to be as easy. I know they’re going to respond, and we’re going to have to be even better than we were tonight.”
Martinez didn’t play much of the second period nor any of the third. Sutter refused to say what was wrong, only to repeat that he didn’t play much of the second or any of the third.
Read my new book Facing Wayne Gretzky, then tell me about it on twitter @growinguphockey. Thanks!