SAN JOSE, CA - APRIL 23: Devin Setoguchi #16 of the San Jose Sharks slides in to the goal after being hit by Dustin Brown #23 of the Los Angeles Kings in game five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at HP Pavilion on April 23, 2011 in San Jose, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The Kings lose the first game in OT, win the second game in OT, win the third game and are leading at the end of the second period of the fourth game, with a chance to go up 3-1 in the series. More than a chance. Because the Kings hadn't blown a lead after two periods all season. They are a defensive team that knows how to shut it down, protect the lead. Except this time they don't. Uncharacteristically, they fall apart in the third period and lose the game. The series, which might have been 3-1 Kings, or even (but for Michal Handzus celebrating in OT when he should have been making sure the puck was over the line) 4-0, is now tied 2-2.
Game Five is a blow-out. Quick is pulled. Ersberg comes in and is worse and Quick is put back in. Before we know it, the Kings are down 3-2. Two days later, the series is over.
November 15, 2010
New season. The Kings are 12-3-0. 2nd in the league in points, 1st in the league by WIN% (Washington is 3 points ahead but has played three more games). They have allowed 7 goals-against in their last 7 games. There is lots of talk of the Kings' new greatness. All of Brayden Schenn's, Oscar Moller's (until his recent recall) and Scott Parse's games are played in that first stretch. Schenn is then sent to Brandon. Parse has surgery. But that's okay; after all, the Kings have managed the 12-3 record with Drew Doughty out nearly half of those games with a concussion. Now he's back. The sky's the limit.
[much much more after the jump]
The Kings respond by going 1-7 over the next 8 games, their only win coming in a shoot-out against Boston. by the end of this 1-7 run, they are 13-10-0, tied for 10th place with...San Jose.
December 27, 2010 - Kings v. Sharks
Anze Kopitar's superhuman aerial pass to Dustin Brown is probably the one goal that every Kings fan remembers from this season. It was the high water mark, the highlight reel goal in the highlight reel game, the 4-0 domination of the supposedly superior Sharks, cited by many, including Terry Murray and Dean Lombardi, as a "statement" game, a game that, in effect, announced the arrival of the new Kings, or the real Kings, or some kind of Kings that at least wouldn't play like Kings teams in history had played.
At the conclusion of that victory, the Kings are 22-12-1. 4th in the Conference, 1 point behind Dallas, who is then 1st in the Pacific. At that point, the Kings are 13-2-1 at home.
And what do the Kings do after making that "statement"?
After giving up 6 goals-against in their previous 6 games, they give up 13 in their next two. They lose 5 straight in regulation on the way to a 2-10-0 run, at the end of which the Kings are in a three-way tie for 11th in the West.
February 28, 2011 - Trade Deadline Day
The Kings are in the middle of an historic hot streak, which ultimately will see them putting up a record of 21-5-5 from mid-January to the beginning of April. In that entire run of 31 games, there is but one game that is an unmitigated mess, and that's the 2/28 7-4 loss to the Red Wings. The Kings of course had been all over the news that day because of the big splash Dean Lombardi made by trading for Dustin Penner. Understandably, the Kings play like they're distracted. All the excitement has gotten them off their game, for a night anyway.
April 6, 2011 - Kings beat Coyotes, clinch playoff berth
The Kings have completed a highly improbable journey by coming back from 11th place to clinch a playoff spot. Emotions are high. Two games left, and the Kings have a chance to finish as high as 4th place. They lose both games and drop to 7th. Were it not for Chicago crapping out at the same time, it could have been 8th.
April 19, 2011, approximately 8:40PM - Game 3, Kings vs. Sharks
A few minutes into the second period, the Kings are up 4-0. The series is tied 1-1 though it could easily have been 2-0 Kings (I'm thinking of Brad Richardson's near goal in OT of game one). The Kings routed the Sharks in game two, and now have scored 8 unanswered goals over four-plus periods. The crowd at Staples is delirious. The Kings have "arrived."
And having arrived, they lose focus and before you know it, it's a 6-5 loss in OT. As with last season's blown chance against Vancouver, the Kings follow a nail-biter disappointment with an embarrassment. They lose their cool twice in one game, and before you know it the Kings are facing elimination.
Rob Scuderi, who knows a thing or two, calls the performance "immature."
I'm No Psychiatrist
but it's hard not to notice that virtually every time the Kings do something reasonably big, they lose focus and fall apart. By "reasonably big" I don't mean "a win" or "a good record." But if it's big enough to make them Big National News -- like being number one in the league, or clinching the playoffs, or making the biggest splash on deadline day, or pushing a cup favorite to the brink -- they suddenly stop doing what they were doing to get themselves to those various lofty heights, and play more or less like kids playing street hockey each with his own Stanley Cup Final play-by-play running in his head. Like when my son is practicing snap shots in the backyard and I step a little closer and can hear him mumbling "Messier with the one-timer."
So if the issue is losing focus, who is to blame for that? The stock answer: the Kings are young. They're making youthful mistakes. Is that it?
Handzus, Stoll, Smyth, Williams, Greene, Scuderi, Mitchell, Ponikarovsky, Penner, Richardson, Parse, Westgarth, Brown, Drewiske and Harrold are all 26 or older. That's 15 guys. So, no. Youth is not the problem.
Besides, we're not talking about one incident. What happened in the Vancouver series, I was more than willing to write off as a learning experience. The several versions of "we've arrived/not-so-fast" that transpired over the course of this season: at best, I can consider those laboratories for learning, banking the wisdom they will then apply when they get to the playoffs again.
But that's where we are now, and the Kings are somehow having to learn the same lesson yet again. Which suggests to me that the lesson simply isn't sinking in.
Sometimes a team comes into a playoff series and they're just dominated from start to finish. Then you can say the team was simply over-matched; they didn't have the skill to compete with an overwhelmingly better team. But I really don't think you can say that when the teams are separated by one point in the standings (Vancouver and LA last year) or seven points (the Kings and Sharks this year). You can't say the Canucks or Sharks were/are undeniably and far-and-away the better team when in both cases there were multiple overtime games and in both cases the supposedly inferior team was in a position not only to win the series. I'm not saying the Kings are better than either of those teams; the only way to demonstrate that is to actually win the series. And the Kings haven't done that.
In both series the Kings were in a position to close and didn't close. And closing, in both cases, meant doing the very thing they had been doing all season, the very thing that was their calling card: playing solid defense. As I said ad nauseum in the last post: sticking to the system.
Doing that doesn't require superhuman ability or in fact superhuman anything, except possibly this: focus.
Coaches can't play the game for the players.
We hear that all the time. But they can guide the focus of their players. In fact, that's all they can do. That, in a nutshell, is their job. If it seems like I'm over-bludgeoning (mostly in part one of this post) the whole "step up" logic, it's because I think what the Kings do is not something that "stepping up" can help. Kirk Gibson, in 1988, stepped up. Certain quarterbacks. Derek Fisher. Etc. (My examples may suck; sorry; I'm really mostly a hockey fan.)
You wouldn't tell the Flying Wallendas (or pick your favorite flying trapeze artists) that what they've been doing for the last few years has been great, but now it's time to step up and really take it to the next level. Because there is no next level, other than death. Plummeting to your death.
The message should be, should have been, don't change anything. The playoffs are no different than what you've been doing all year. Just keep doing that. Because it works. It's what we do better than almost everybody. You don't have to be something more in order to rise to some fictitious occasion.
I would probably also add, turn off the TV, don't read the paper, turn off the phone and (probably above all) don't read blogs.
(Wow. Ryan Smyth diving back-check poke check just saved the game. That's how you do it.)
(Jonathan Quick bicycle kick save...)
(two shots at the open net...)
(make that three)
(why do I feel Bob Miller is taking a HUGE risk by saying we'll see you at Staples when there's still 20 seconds to go?)
(consider this your recap; the Fragile Psyche Cup goes to six games...)