NEWARK, N.J. – From Vancouver to St. Louis, on to Phoenix and now New Jersey, the Los Angeles Kings have been able to jump on their opponents and take away any advantage the fired-up arenas would be expected to give the home team.
The excitement builds outside and inside the raucous buildings, and what should be a pure rush of adrenaline, can sometimes turn into a wave of nerves that can rattle even the best of players.
Whatever the cause, the Kings—the No. 8 seed out of the West—have capitalized on every possible thing they can while playing away from home. They are a record 9-0 on the road in these playoffs, and are lengthening another record with 11 straight wins in enemy arenas, dating to last season.
The Kings took a 1-0 lead over the Devils in the Stanley Cup finals with a 2-1 overtime win on Wednesday night, spoiling New Jersey’s first chance in these playoffs to open a series at home.
“You’ve just got to come ready to play.” Los Angeles defenceman Matt Greene said Thursday, after the Kings held an optional practice. “It’s the finals. You’re going to be jacked up, you’re going to be nervous. You could have this game anywhere in the world and I think guys are going to be nervous going into it just because of what’s on the line and where you’re at and what’s at stake.”
The Kings seemed as focused as can be as they roll through the playoffs. They are 13-2 so far, and haven’t been stretched past five games in any of their first three series wins over the top three-seeded teams in the Western Conference.
Los Angeles has led 3-0 in each series and shows no signs of letting up. The Kings have managed to get plenty of rest throughout the post-season as they have often been forced to wait for their next opponent to emerge from the previous round.
“Our guys said today they felt sluggish,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. “If that was nerves, then so it was. Our guys felt they could play better. That’s a good thing. I’m sure the other team is saying the same thing, too.”
After knocking out the Phoenix Coyotes with an overtime win in Game 5 on May 22, the Kings had a seven-day break before facing off against the Devils. Now after just one game, the series has two off days before Game 2 on Saturday.
“It’s a funny setup again,” Sutter said. “We only played one game in four days since we got here. That’s how it was going to be.
“So now, it’s get ready for Saturday. It’s not about what happened, who we played last time, anything like that. I think we know our opponent is a lot tougher than anyone we played yet. Going into last night, I think they were 6-2, something like that, in home games. I think we know what the challenge will be on Saturday.”
While several Devils were quite open in the moments following their Game 1 loss about how nervous they were, the Kings followed suit on Thursday and admitted they had plenty of jitters, too.
It was evident in the play of both teams on the choppy ice that wilted a bit due to the high humidity in the Northeast. But funny hops probably could’ve been expected anyway due to the pressure of the Stanley Cup opener.
“I think both teams were pretty nervous,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “There is a lot of guys who haven’t been on this stage in the Stanley Cup finals. Nerves definitely played a part in Game 1. There are a lot of things about Game 1 that are abnormal. You kind of settle in after that and start playing hockey.
“The nerves were probably a little more extreme going into the game. Then five, six, seven minutes in, after you get a couple of shifts, I know it sounds funny, but it just becomes another game.”
If the Kings can keep carrying that feeling and attitude as they march deeper into the finals, then Los Angeles might be on the verge of its first Stanley Cup championship since the team began play in the NHL in 1967.
Los Angeles is in the finals for only the second time, and now has its first overtime win in the championship round. Teams that have won Game 1 since the series became a best-of-seven in 1939 have captured the Cup in 55 of 72 matchups (76.4 per cent), but the Game 1 loser has bucked that trend in two of the past three years.
“The Western Conference finals were really tough. Just a grind,” Brown said. “Here we’re just staying with it mentally. We all have an opportunity to play for the Cup, which is also exciting. It kind of helps the mental side of things.
“We’re not worried about our record, or road record, or home record. We’re worried about three more wins.”