EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – Darryl Sutter is a hockey coach and a farmer, not always in that order. He is not the type of person to argue about etiquette and unwritten rules.
So while the Kings rested and the Blackhawks went through a light practice Sunday, Sutter and Joel Quenneville left the touchy-feely rhetoric to the coaches in the Eastern Conference finals.
With little separating Chicago and Los Angeles in a series headed to a key Game 4 on Monday night, both coaches believe the West is likely to be won with simple, straightforward execution and effort. The Kings have been slightly better at both in the first three games, but they’re not comfortable or complacent.
“We’re playing the Stanley Cup champion,” Sutter said. “If you go into every game thinking it’s an elimination game, that’s a good way of doing it. That’s what we’ll do again, and when it’s over, it’ll be over, and we’ll get ready for the next elimination game. It’s not as complicated as it seems.”
When the Kings attempt to take a 3-1 series lead at Staples Center, they’ll stick to their no-nonsense game plan against the powerful Blackhawks. At its core, the Kings require scoring and defence from all four lines, because Sutter won’t mix his forwards or play matchup games against Chicago’s top players.
The plan is working splendidly so far against the Blackhawks, who have managed just four 5-on-5 goals in the series’ nine periods—just two in the Kings’ two victories. Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell haven’t scored a goal against Los Angeles, while Patrick Sharp only got his first with 5 seconds left in Chicago’s 4-3 loss in Game 3.
“L.A. is playing pretty well, and we know they have momentum,” said Kane, a minus-3 with no points in the conference finals. “They’re maybe the best team in the league, and have been the best team in the playoffs when they do have the momentum, so we’ve got to try to get it back from them and sustain it.”
The Blackhawks are trailing 2-1 for the fourth time in their last six playoff series, but the champions have won their last six consecutive playoff series. They see simple solutions to their latest deficit, starting with a commitment to gritty goals and penalty-free defence—but Kane also realizes he must step up soon.
Kane’s only goal in the last eight games was his overtime series-clincher against Minnesota, and he has identified two goals for himself in Game 4.
“Demand the puck, and when I do get it, be confident with it,” Kane said. “Just put it on yourself to play better for your teammates. Try to get the puck in better spots and let my instinct take over.”
The Kings have done a remarkable job limiting Kane, whose famed first step isn’t much use when Los Angeles constantly shadows his moves and limits him largely to the perimeter of the offence. Much of the defensive work against Chicago’s top line is done by Anze Kopitar, the Selke Trophy finalist and the playoffs’ leading scorer with 20 points in 17 games despite managing just one goal in the last 10.
“Kopitar versus Toews, that’s clearly a good matchup, but there’s also times where it’s dictated by what’s just happened on the ice,” Sutter said. “I believe our fourth line should be able to take three or four shifts a game against that line. If they can’t, they shouldn’t be in the lineup.”
Los Angeles’ defensive success also is related to its shockingly effective offensive game in the post-season. The Kings were the lowest-scoring NHL team to make the playoffs this season, but they’re the highest-scoring team in the playoffs after another four-goal performance in Game 3 led by dynamic centre Jeff Carter, who has 10 points in four games.
The Kings put 18 shots on Corey Crawford in the third period of Game 3, forcing Chicago to play defence instead of trying to tie it. The Blackhawks been in too many tight spots to worry, but their leaders realize it’s time to counter the Kings’ successes.
“You can’t think about what’s going to happen in the series too much, but tomorrow is obviously a huge game,” Kane said. “It gets us right back in the series if we can win it. … We’ve had a good track record of coming back in series, so hopefully history can repeat itself and we can do it again, but it’s not going to be easy.”
Although the Kings’ regulars stayed off the ice Sunday, defenceman Robyn Regehr skated with the reserves. The veteran has missed Los Angeles’ last nine games with a knee injury.