Game 7s can be like Christmas morning for NHL players and no one feels the anticipation more than the biggest kid on the Los Angeles Kings block, defenceman Drew Doughty. Doughty is this risk-taking, hockey-playing savant who is seemingly impervious to pressure, which may explain the two Olympic gold medals and the Stanley Cup championship, all earned before the age of 25.
On Friday, the Kings play the Anaheim Ducks in the deciding game of the Pacific Division championship and it is a distinct study in contrast. On the one hand, you have the Ducks, with the second-best overall record in the NHL this season, openly talking about playoff pressure and how it can affect performance. Corey Perry, their 43-goal scorer, noted that they played a Game 7 last year against the Detroit Red Wings and didn't handle it particularly well. "Hopefully," ventured Perry, "we can learn from that experience."
Then there are the Kings, this playoff-tested bunch, who've now won a league-high 30 playoff games over the past three years, including the 16 that led them to the 2012 Stanley Cup championship. They are a sparkling 7-2 in elimination games since 2011, including a 5-0 mark during this year's playoffs. Only five other teams in NHL history have won at least five elimination games in a single postseason, topped by the 1975 New York Islanders, who won eight.
Ultimately, that may be the tipping point in the series, L.A.'s experience in winning when it matters.
"You coach for the playoffs," Kings' coach Darryl Sutter explained Thursday. "Anybody who doesn't coach for the playoffs is just looking for a job. The only reason I still coach is for the playoffs. That's why they're seven-game series. Most series go six games. Seven becomes a defining moment."
According to Sutter, NHL teams are now so close that the fine line between winning and losing is impossible to quantify.
"You never know about the specific moment in the game, where one play or one mistake or one call or one bad bounce [can happen]," Sutter said. "If you go through all those Games 6 and 7s, that's what it comes down to."
Sutter can occasionally be difficult to engage, but he made a couple of interesting points over the past 48 hours. First, to a question about playing an elimination game, Sutter commented that a team is facing elimination from the moment a series begins, in the first minute of the first game – and if they aren't thinking that way, or playing with that sort of early desperation, they usually end up on the wrong end of the result.
He also noted that the players in the Kings' core group – Doughty, Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick – have played nine playoff series together in the past three years. They've won some, they've lost some, but they know how to handle them. In that same span, the Ducks have been eliminated twice in the first round and missed the playoffs altogether.
If experience matters at playoff time, you can place your bets accordingly.
For anyone tuning into the series for the first time, they'll see Doughty in top form again. In Sochi, where he played an integral role on Canada's gold-medal winning team, Doughty was far more of an offensive force. Here, the Kings are playing without their two most experienced defencemen, Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr, which has forced Doughty to play more hard minutes for them, especially on the penalty kill. He played a game-high 27 minutes and two seconds in Wednesday's win over the Ducks. Doughty makes no bones about the fact he ultimately wants to win some NHL hardware before his career ends, but he is always willing to put team success ahead of individual awards.
"Everyone expects us to win games, but no one puts more pressure on us than ourselves," said Doughty. "Every single one of our teammates believes in the guy sitting next to them or across from them. Nothing is going to stop us. We're a close-knit team that wants nothing more than to be another Stanley Cup champion."
So when I compare Friday's seventh game to the anticipation of a Christmas morning, Doughty's eyes brighten in agreement. "It's like that," he said. "The night before, it is going to be tough to sleep. You're anxious for the game and for the game to start. Nap time during the day is pretty tough too. These games are so fun. These games are ones you dream about playing in. This is when the best players play their best. That's what makes Game 7s so much fun to watch for fans and so much fun to play for the players."