Just in case the Vancouver Canucks needed any reminding about which team was dealing with the most pressure in their opening-round playoff series against the Los Angeles Kings, defenceman Drew Doughty helpfully pointed it out early Saturday afternoon.
“They’ve got a ton of pressure,” said Doughty, “especially being in a market like Vancouver. They came in first (and) they’re expected to go all the way to the Cup final again, but we’re obviously the team that wants to stop them from doing that.”
Then there was this observation from Kings’ captain Dustin Brown, who freely conceded that the burden is far greater on the President’s Trophy-winning Canucks than the upstart Angelenos, who won twice on the road to take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven Western Conference semi-final series.
“They have to deal with a lot more than we have to deal with, just given the locale and the mentality there,” said Brown. “I mean, it’s Canada. So that’s a heavy weight.”
Well, it was Canada for the first two games. On Sunday night, the Kings will host Game 3 at the Staples Centre, with a chance to put a stranglehold on the series. On Saturday, at high noon, the Kings convened at their practice rink, which happens to be in the same athletic complex as the NBA Los Angeles Lakers’ training facility. The Lakers of Kobe and the rest are accustomed to playoff success; for the Kings, this is a relatively new phenomenon, and so, the first order of business for all the Kings’ men following an optional practice was to take one deep collective breath and put their achievements in perspective.
Yes, they unexpectedly won the first two games of the series on the road. Yes, they have a chance to pull off a monumental upset – not Miracle On Manchester big maybe, but a significant achievement for an organization with a limited history of playoff success. But no, they do not under any circumstances consider themselves home and cooled.
No series is ever over until the two teams gather in the hand-shake line and anyone with even the smallest familiarity with recent NHL history can tell you that since the NHL lockout, two teams that went on to win the Stanley Cup – the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and the 2011 Boston Bruins – lost the first two games of their opening-round series after digging themselves out of an early deficit.
So nothing is won yet, a point that Kings centre Mike Richards was at pains to make Saturday following an optional practice that saw only a handful of Kings’ spare players take to the ice.
“They controlled most of the game last night,” said Richards. “They played well. Quickie (goaltender Jonathan Quick) had to make some good saves; we probably relied on him too much last night; but we’re at home right now where we feel comfortable. We have to go in with confidence, but knowing we have to play better.”
The Kings have dominated the special-teams’ game thus far in the series, with three power-play and two shorthanded goals, but that development can turn on a dime. The last time the two teams met in the playoffs, two years ago in the opening round, the Kings were dynamite with the man advantage early in the series too, but eventually, the Canucks made the necessary adjustments to limit Doughty and Jack Johnson’s effectiveness from the points and ultimately recovered from a 2-1 series deficit to win the series in six games. That was two years ago, but the memory was still fresh in centre Jarret Stoll’s mind.
“We haven’t played well on home ice in the playoffs,” said Stoll, “and that’s got to change. We can still get better – and I’m sure they’re saying the same things – but we’re going to have to be better.”
Six years ago, Stoll played for the Edmonton Oilers back, when they were an eighth seed that knocked off a No. 1 – the Detroit Red Wings – and carried the momentum of that massive upset all the way to a berth in the Stanley Cup final.
So he, more than any player on either side, knows just what is possible at this time of year.
According to Stoll, the Kings’ players don’t concern themselves too much with the way this series has been positioned as a David vs. Goliath match-up, a No. 8 vs. a No. 1 seed.
“At the end of the regular season, everyone is seeded and that’s what it is at that time,” said Stoll, “but once that Game 1 starts, it’s 0-0 and anybody can beat anybody. So play Game 1 and Game 2 and you go through the series and you adjust and you make reads and you figure out ways to beat that team. And it can happen – any year, any series. Hopefully, we can just keep going here and just push forward.”
Up front, the Kings have received strong games from both Richards and Brown, who has four points in the first two games. However, Doughty leads them in ice time, averaging a team high 26 minutes and 49 seconds and playing arguably his finest hockey of what had been an up-and-down regular season.
Doughty was preaching caution Saturday: “With one win, they can turn the series around just like that,” he said.
“We just got to approach it as if the series is just starting and we have home-ice advantage. It’s Game 1, we’re not up 2-0. If anything, we got to act like we’re down a couple. We can’t go in there relaxing or taking them too easy, because they’re going to come even harder. This is going to be the hardest game for us. We still haven’t played our best hockey. Going into Sunday, we’ve got to play our best.”