After the Kings' loss in game four a couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post entitled "Is this is pattern." In that post, I covered the Kings' recent history of peaks followed immediately by collapse. I won't rehash that now, except to say that I identified several key moments over the last two seasons, in each of which the Kings collapsed in the face of success.
- 2010 Playoffs against Vancouver, with a lead going into the third period of game four, and a chance to go up 3-1 in the series.
- 2010-11 first fifteen games: the Kings are 12-3, #1 in the league.
- December 27, 2010: Kings dominate the Sharks 4-0 (the game with the amazing Kopitar to Brown aerial pass).
- Trade deadline day.
- 2011 Playoffs against San Jose: up 4-0 in game three with a chance to go up 2-1 in the series.
The post linked above (and below) goes into excruciating detail. Here's part of my conclusion:
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.
[...] 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 to win the series. [...] 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.
[...] 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.
That was me after game four. Here's Lombardi after the series was over:
LOMBARDI: "[...] I don’t like the fact that we put ourselves in situations where we had to face adversity, but I liked the way we dealt with it. The way they responded after putting themselves in that position in late January, we went through a stretch there for a month and a half where we only lost four games, and every one of those games was critical. The way they found a way to win, that, i think, is progress. [...] But on the other hand, [...] it was almost like we had trouble dealing with success. I put success in quotes.
We had the 12-3 (start), and there’s such a thing of feeling good about yourself in the wrong way.
Then we had another stretch where we were really good, and it looked like we had learned from the first one, then we fell off and put ourselves to where we had to fight our way back and play at an incredibly high winning percentage to get in (to the playoffs).
Then you almost look at the playoffs too, a 4-0 lead (in Game 3). [...] Again, I put this in quotes, but it’s a version of `success,’ and dealing with it.
[...O]n the one hand, I liked the fact that we responded to putting ourselves in a predicament, and not giving up, and on the other hand, we have to learn from this and not get in that situation in the first place. So you lose a 4-0 lead, and then you find a way to go back up there and win Game 5 and take them to overtime. Even in Game 6 there, the first 30 minutes, they’re all over us, and the last 30 minutes are ours. So they’ve shown they can respond to it, but the point is that to be a really good team is to learn to be professional.
If you look at the good teams, you have to define the problem and then recognize the signs that this is not going to seep in again. That’s the responsibility of your captains [...], that when you get off to 12-3 and you start seeing that slide, knock it off. Detroit, when they’re in a slide, they’ve be .500, but you don’t go 0-8 or 0-9 or whatever.
[...] [O]ne thing that’s troubling[:] [...] all of a sudden, the playoffs start and we were very uncharacteristic in what is supposed to be a staple of our game. I told you this three years ago, that we’re going to build this from the back out. Defensively, it’s the first step. We were fourth in the league in goals against, and we accomplished that. Then we got in the playoffs and we scored goals and all of a sudden we’re giving them up. So that’s something we’ve got to look at closely.
[...] The staple of our game, where was that? What was going on there?"
I singled out the coaches without mentioning the captains. Lombardi singled out the captains without mentioning the coaches. I don't know about him, but I think it's both. I put the emphasis on the coach because he not only has more authority and experience, but he has the power to change the line-up, the lines, ice-time, strategy -- while the captains have to play the hand they're dealt.