Sometimes, there’s such a thing as too much time between NHL playoff games and the perfect case in point is Sunday’s meeting between the Los Angeles Kings and the Phoenix Coyotes, which goes at high noon Pacific time, largely at NBC’s behest, but also because the Staples Centre needed to shoe-horn three NBA playoff games into the crowded arena schedule since the last time the two hockey teams met.
The giddiness on display in the sports community here has been tempered somewhat by recent events. Saturday was a lost day for both the Los Angeles Clippers and the Lakers. The Clippers had a 24-point lead against the San Antonio Spurs; lost by 10; and are now down 3-0 in their series. Unlike the NHL, which has seen three teams rally from a 3-0 series deficit, it has never happened before in the NBA. So bye-bye Clippers and the same fate may soon happen to the Lakers, who had their own meltdown against the Oklahoma City Thunder, blowing a 13-point lead and falling by three.
Scheduling games at Staples Centre has been chaotic lately, but it could get a whole lot easier in a matter of days, with only the surprising Kings left standing. They hold a 3-0 lead on the Coyotes, in the same way they also held 3-0 leads in previous rounds on the St. Louis Blues and the Vancouver Canucks. If L.A. wins today, they will be the first team since the playoff format switched to best-of-sevens for each round to advance playing the minimum six home games. And on the road, their record is even more stellar, a perfect 7-0.
Many reporters who’ve just materialized on the scene had an ‘ah-ha’ moment on Saturday and thought what a good idea it might be to ask either Mike Richards or Jeff Carter, two Kings forwards, what it’s like to come back from 3-0 in a series? After all, Richards and Carter were part of the winning side two years ago in Philadelphia, when the Flyers joined the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs and the 1975 New York Islanders as the only teams to win a series, after losing the first three games.
Those of us who tried that a month ago in the opening round vs. Vancouver were not surprised at the results. Richards, once again, didn’t want to talk about – and to be fair, who can blame him? It is not his job to provide the Coyotes with a blue print for success, or a reason for hope.
Sutter was also brilliant parrying questions about playoffs past. He’d previously piloted the Calgary Flames down a similar path in 2004, knocking off three consecutive divisional champions to get to the Stanley Cup final. Calgary needed a lot more games to do it than the Kings have so far, but the excitement – and the way the bandwagon filled up with each successive round – is similar and familiar.
Sutter has been very forthcoming about most of what’s happening to the Kings, but he is reluctant to talk about the Calgary years and specifically what happened eight years ago during that Cinderella run that ended in Game 7 disappointment in the Stanley Cup final. On Saturday, Sutter explained why: “Everybody makes a big deal of that. Quite honestly, we had better teams after that and lost in the first round, so ...
“That’s how close it.”
So, nobody on the L.A. side, is taking anything for granted. The Kings have clearly no interest in venturing out to Phoenix for a fifth game Tuesday, which is why Kings’ centre Anze Kopitar was mouthing the usual game-by-game and period-by-period mantra, in preparation for today’s deciding game.
“That’s what you’ve got to do in the playoffs,” he said. “Once you get caught looking ahead or back, you can get caught daydreaming. That’s obviously not very good.”
As for the Coyotes, 40-year-old winger Ray Whitney had a good line about the early start, noting it isn’t difficult for him to get up in morning because he had three young kids at home. His younger teammates? A little different. “We may need to leave a couple of wake-up calls,” said Whitney. “Some of these young guys can really sleep.”
Thus far in the series, the Coyotes have just three goals – from Derek Morris, Mikkel Boedker and Daymond Langkow. None, in other words, from captain Shane Doan, or their leading regular-season scorers, Radim Vrbata and Whitney.
“Right now, it’s tough for us,” said Whitney. “When you play a team that’s smothering like this one, without a lot of power plays, it’s even more frustrating to try and create offence. They’re doing a good job.”
Sutter’s advice to his players was to stay focused, but also to enjoy the moment, which they seem to be doing. By staying in a downtown hotel Saturday night, and on the periphery of the crowds going in and out of the building, they received a taste of the atmosphere and excitement.
“The biggest thing is, everybody was caught up in the team staying downtown and the Stanley Cup playoffs,” said Sutter. “You know what, experience is experience. It’s awesome for the young guys. They haven’t had it. Most of them hadn’t even won a playoff game.
“Why not experience the experience, right? Same thing you (reporters) are doing, experience the experience. It’s the best part of it. Why shouldn’t they be able to do that. Otherwise, you’re just watching another team play, right?”
So Darryl, is L.A. – after six giddy weeks of playoff success – finally becoming a hockey town?
“I live in Manhattan Beach and go to L.A. for the games,” he answered, deadpan. “Manhattan Beach is a nice quiet town.”