Eleven months and two weeks ago, the Los Angeles Kings returned home from St. Louis carrying the baggage of a two-nothing first round series deficit following an overtime defeat and a loss in which the winning goal was scored in the game’s final minute.
They were dissimilar from the losses the opened their current first round series against San Jose, but they were losses all the same, and the Kings looked to become only the second team in franchise history to win a playoff series after trailing two games to none.
They did just that. A four-game surge that evolved into a six-game winning streak was started by a 1-0 Game 3 win over the Blues in a grinding, physical display that featured Jonathan Quick at his playoff best.
“It’s really hard to win a game one-nothing,” Brown said after the game.
It will be equally as challenging for the team to right itself in this series and return to Northern California with a turnaround in momentum and a renewed purpose in the attempt to advance within the hostile battleground of the realigned divisional playoff structure.
And it is unlikely to happen if the Kings do not win both Game 3 and Game 4.
With a split, San Jose returns home with its own boost in momentum. Home teams are 22-1-1 in the last 24 games between the two teams, and the Sharks have lost eight straight games at Staples Center since playing the puck from the bench became a viable late game strategy. Should these teams split the next two games, San Jose will have exorcized the Curse of Ryane Clowe and will return home to the SAP Center with not only confidence and momentum, but an opportunity to close out their rivals in a setting that to this point has produced an aggregate 13-5 score in favor of the home team.
Yes, the Kings will be focusing on Game 3 only, and Darryl Sutter’s prescription blinders will shield them well from any potential thinking ahead.
“Every game is a Game 7 mentality. Game 1, 2, 3, right up and down,” Jonathan Quick said. “Obviously they won the first two Game 7s, and we have to win [Tuesday’s].”
To do so, he’ll have to immediately return to the form that saw him emerge as the NHL’s best spring goaltender. The goals allowed over the first two games weren’t necessarily his fault; he was tasked with being the last line of defense against a barrage of odd-man rushes and Grade-A opportunities, some of which were the symptom of the Kings having to press for offense and a departure from their patient, close-to-the-vest, playoff tested style.
But Quick has faced an onslaught of quality chances before, and he has both won games and kept the Kings within room to strike. In Game 1 at St. Louis last year, he had stopped 40 of 41 shots on ice heavily tilted towards his end prior to Alex Steen’s fluky overtime game-winner. In Game 2 in Vancouver one year prior, he stopped 46-of-48 shots in one of his signature postseason performances. Over the last two playoff runs, his first round save percentage is an extraordinary .948.
One of Los Angeles’ goals in these two home games will be to ease the quality and frequency of the shots the visitors are able to generate, and it starts with the team’s play one zone away from Quick.
“I think the neutral zone has been a big challenge for us,” Jarret Stoll said. “Their speed coming through, I think you could see a lot of odd-man rushes, a lot of partial breakaways, partial two-on-ones. Those are the things we have to clean up. We’re relying on Jonathan way too much, I think, to make some grade-A saves, and that’s not what we’re all about. We know he’s there to make big saves at big moments in the game, but we don’t want to rely on him like that. We’ve got to clean all that up if we want to stay alive here.”
The Kings are 2-11 in playoff series in which they trailed two games to none, and when considering blueprints to emerge victorious from such a deficit, Los Angeles’ example from the previous decade is more applicable. When the Kings returned from Detroit trailing two-nothing in April, 2001, they had conceded nine goals through the first two games of the series and had scored only three. After Game 2 was decided by a four-goal margin at Joe Louis Arena, the series shifted back to Staples Center as part of a hellacious back-to-back set that spanned four time zones and continued the following night, when both Felix Potvin and Chris Osgood turned in outstanding efforts, and a Josef Stumpel deflection of a Mathieu Schneider shot late in the third period was the difference.
Two nights later, they erased a three-goal deficit with just over six minutes remaining in the Frenzy on Figueroa before winning a 4-3 game on Eric Belanger’s overtime game-winner. The Kings won two more one-goal games to advance past the Red Wings, one of which was a Game 6 stunner in which Adam Deadmarsh scored both the third period game-tying goal and overtime series clincher.
To translate: If the Kings are to complete a comeback against San Jose, be prepared for excellent goaltending, one-goal games, and tense circumstances that aren’t for the squeamish.
“We know the situation,” Stoll said. “Your chances, the percentages are going down, down and down if we don’t fix the way we’re playing and realize that we need to be better.”
“Things are hard to accomplish are hard for a reason. They’re not easy, otherwise everybody would do it every year, and life would be pretty easy. But you have to go through some things to build character. We think we have character in the room to get over this and we’ll hopefully show that [Tuesday] night.”
It will come back to enhancing the detail in the team’s game and reducing the quality opportunities in their own end. As Anze Kopitar noted, “we certainly have to get back to playing our style of game.”
In a show of the character that Stoll referenced, Quick was engaging his teammates and offering encouragement as they skated off the SAP Center ice after the 7-2 Game 2 loss.
For Games 3 and 4, their response to their goaltender will come in the form of their on-ice action.
“We didn’t say a whole lot after [Game 2], but we certainly have to give him a little bit more support than we did,” Anze Kopitar said.
“He’s been there for us all year, the last couple of years, you name it. We have to play better in front of him.”
And even though the Kings emerged victorious from similar predicaments in 2001 and 2013, past accomplishments have little bearing on the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
“It was a different team, a different series. Our team is different,” Stoll said. “We’ve got some new guys, some guys out, some guys in. We can go back on that experience a little bit, but then again it’s a different year. You’ve got to play well and you’ve got to make your own luck. You’ve got to play the right way.”
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