On a sultry, hot and humid night – the kind associated with lazy evenings on a porch swing, not steamy hockey arenas – Los Angeles Kings defenceman Drew Doughty was taxed to the max by the opening game of the Stanley Cup final, a 2-1 overtime victory for his squad.
It wasn’t just that Doughty was on the ice a game-high 28 minutes 15 seconds for the Kings on Wednesday and started the play that led to Anze Kopitar’s winning, breakaway goal. Doughty plays the most minutes, practically every night.
In the previous round, the Kings played games in the Arizona heat, where the outside temperatures approached 40 C, but that was nothing compared to the sweat box – “like a Russian sauna” forward Dustin Penner said – that was the Prudential Center on Wednesday.
For a team from Southern California to feel the heat so acutely may seem odd, but it was a distinct factor in the game – the players fighting to stay hydrated, will triumphing over skill until the final moment, when Kopitar put it away. But the net result was just what the Kings ordered, too – another victory on the road, nine in a row, in what is becoming an all-out assault on the NHL record book.
Nor can Doughty’s contributions to these successes be understated. Once upon a time, the trademark of the opposing New Jersey Devils was a pair of future Hall of Fame defencemen, Scott Niedermayer and Scott Stevens. One was as smooth as silk, the other as tough as nails.
Now, the Devils’ go-to-pair is Marek Zidlicky and Bryce Salvador – and even if both have had thoroughly professional performances in these playoffs, there is no one on the Jersey side that can do what Doughty (two goals, nine assists, plus-12 in 15 playoff games) does for the Kings. He has a little of Stevens and a little of Niedermayer in his game, more physical than the latter, better puck-handling skills than the former.
Doughty’s vastly improved play in the second half of the regular season and into the playoffs directly mirrors the ascent of the Kings, during their 13-2 playoff run. As he rounded into form, after missing training camp in a contract dispute, so did they.
“Missing camp, obviously, wasn’t a good thing,” Doughty acknowledged. “I wasn’t happy I had to do that. Throughout the year, I knew I had to live up to expectations. I signed the biggest contract on the team. If you’re doing that, you have to be the best player on the team. I wanted to do that. I worked my hardest to do that. The pressure got to me and I wasn’t myself.
“As the year went on, I started to put that in the back of my mind and kind of forget about it. I’m back to playing the way I can.”
Doughty has a surfer boy’s demeanour when things are going well. He is apt to blurt out just about anything, with every third sentence is punctuated by the word “awesome.”
Goaltender Jonathan Quick is awesome. Head coach Darryl Sutter is awesome. The Kings’ new-found notoriety in Los Angeles is totally awesome.
There is a confident swagger about Doughty, but it is not offensive. More than anything else, it’s his youthful exuberance that comes tumbling out. The way Doughty plays, it’s easy to forget he’s just 22 and, according to Sutter, still learning the ropes, and getting better all the time.
To Doughty, he is now playing hockey “the way I used to play, just kind of carefree, having fun out there. Once I started to have fun out there, that’s when I hit my stride. Now, I’m feeling good.”
For their part, the Devils know they have to attack the Kings defence far better than they did in the opener when the best-of-seven series resumes Saturday. According to New Jersey centre Travis Zajac, the Devils had issues because the Kings defencemen collectively stood up so well, and got a lot of back pressure help from their forwards.
“For us, we have to get pucks behind them and go to work,” Zajac said. “You look at the other series – Philly, Rangers – we were able to create some offence from off our cycles, from going high to low, to the points, getting traffic, getting shots in net. We definitely didn’t do enough of that [Wednesday]”
As the calendar turned to June Friday, Doughty said he was of two minds about another two-day gap in the never-ending playoff schedule. On the one hand, the Kings would like to get right back at it as opposed to waiting until Saturday. On the other hand, Doughty had put it all on the line in the opener; and the tank was close to empty, especially as he watched Kopitar go in on that breakaway.
“I was gassed, just so tired,” said Doughty. “I was hoping and praying that he’d bury it and when he did, we were so relieved to finish that game because we were exhausted.”
And the ice. Was it as bad as it looked?
“It was brutal. It was awful. It’s probably one of the worst we’ve played on all season. It was so hot in there, everyone was sweating buckets. Everyone was trying to stay hydrated, but it was hard. It was just too hot out there, bottom line.”