In an NHL coaching career that spans 909 regular-season games and 101 more in the playoffs, Darryl Sutter has learned a thing or two about pushing motivational buttons.
Sutter is a noted contrarian and so, last Saturday morning, with the playoff races coming down to the wire and his Los Angeles Kings with a chance to finish atop the Pacific Division, he unexpectedly took both his team and his starting goaltender, Jonathan Quick, to task. The coach noted how the Kings, once they had officially qualified for postseason play, were satisfied with simply that – being a playoff team.
“So now, my responsibility is to make sure they’re not [still]satisfied.”
That was shot No. 1 across the bow. Shot No. 2 was even more eyebrow-raising.
As others gushed about Quick’s record-setting season, Sutter was busy heaping praise on the opposition’s goaltender, Antti Niemi, because a) Niemi previously won a Stanley Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks; and b) Niemi made all the necessary saves late in a 6-5 victory over L.A. last Thursday, which put the San Jose Sharks in a position to move up to seventh in the Western Conference.
That is Sutter’s style and essence in a nutshell: Never allow a team to become too complacent. He wants to keep the players hungry, thinking – and maybe just a little off-balance, too.
This is the challenge facing the No. 1-seeded Vancouver Canucks in the opening round: The No. 8 Kings went a respectable 9-2-3 in the final 14 games and are defined by their goaltending and defensive play – two qualities traditionally associated with playoff success.
Quick is a legitimate Vézina Trophy candidate who established club records for shutouts (10), save percentage (.929) and goals-against average (1.95). Los Angeles allowed the fewest goals in its history (179, breaking the record of 185 in 1974-75) and thus, anyone expecting a duplication of the thrilling high-scoring series played between the Kings and Canucks two years ago will surely be disappointed.
As well as the Kings defended this season, they struggled to score goals, finishing 29th overall in the league. They are the only 2012 playoff team to score fewer than 200 (194).
Forward Jeff Carter missed the final five games of the season with a deep bone bruise on his ankle and, though he is expected to play at some point in the series, it is unclear how effective he can be.
In Carter’s absence, Sutter broke up his defined No. 1 line to get some scoring balance. Justin Williams dropped down to the second line to play with Mike Richards and rookie Dwight King. Meanwhile, Brad Richardson went from the press box to the top line with Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown.
Richards is potentially the Kings’ most important player in the series. He has been a solid two-way performer, but his scoring production fell off in the second half, after returning from a concussion (probably too early) in December. However, Richards finished the season on a five-game point-scoring streak and his experience (helping the Philadelphia Flyers get to the 2010 Stanley Cup final) will be needed to counter the Canucks’ superior playoff pedigree.
As usual, the game within the game between the respective coaches, Sutter and Alain Vigneault of Vancouver, will make for interesting theatre.
L.A.’s shutdown blueline pair (Rob Scuderi and Drew Doughty) is the key. Scuderi won a Stanley Cup with the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, and he and Doughty will undoubtedly see a lot of Canucks captain Henrik Sedin. In a perfect world, Sutter would probably want to play Richards against Sedin as well, but that would leave Kopitar against Ryan Kesler – a match-up that likely favours Vancouver physically.
Accordingly, there could be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the benches as the coaches play the match game, slowing it down even further. The term “patience” will spill from the mouths of players on both teams in the next fortnight. And that’s what this series will require: patience from everybody, including viewers, who may spend long stretches of the games waiting for something to happen.
In their four previous meetings, the teams combined for just 15 goals – and there’s no reason to think it’ll be any different now.
Sometimes, a No. 8 seed can be a pushover, just happy to qualify for the playoffs. Los Angeles, which made some of the boldest moves of the past 12 months to bolster its playoff hopes, isn’t one of those.
The Kings pose a legitimate threat. Sutter, if nothing else, will see to that.