LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles Kings are playing with fire and they know it. In the Western Conference final and Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final, they’ve played from behind for significantly more than they played with a lead. In fact, they have played without a lead since Game 6 of the conference final, a span of 138 minutes and 49 seconds of hockey.
On one hand, the fact that the Kings have been as successful as they’ve been is a sign they are a resilient bunch and that’s a good thing. But playing from behind is a difficult way to play and it has forced the Kings to go with all kinds of line combinations in order to get things going. It worked in Game 1 when coach Darryl Sutter put Jeff Carter with Kyle Clifford and the Kings scored their first goal of the game and in overtime when Mike Richards and Justin Williams were on the ice for the game-winner.
“You can’t chase leads all the time,” Sutter said. “The National Hockey League is the best league in the world. There’s two teams left out there, which means that they both have come a long ways and they both had to be resilient. You don’t get any award for being resilient. We can play a lot better. It’s way better when you’re not chasing the lead.”
Of the seven games the Kings played against Chicago, there was only one game where they did not trail at any point in the game. Overall, the Kings have played 1,364 minutes and 34 seconds in the post-season and have played with a lead for 524:55, which accounts for 38.5 percent of the time. They’ve trailed for a total of 447:51, or 32.2 percent of the time. So it hasn’t been that bad overall, but the trend of late is for the Kings to fall behind in games, then be forced to mount comebacks.
Fatigue certainly had something to do with the Kings falling behind in Game 1 of the final. After their grueling seven-game series with the Blackhawks, the Kings didn’t have much time to recharge for the Stanley Cup final. Having an extra day of rest between Games 1 and 2 should help. The fact that some of his best players were flagging early forced Sutter to juggle his lines considerably. In a game that lasted more than 64 minutes, Anze Kopitar and Carter were the only two forwards who played more than 20.
“Partway through the first period, once I recognized guys didn’t have their game, it wasn’t just (Richards) and (Williams), it was a lot of guys (who were shuffled),” Sutter said. “Jeff played a lot with (Clifford) and Trevor (Lewis). Stolly (Jarret Stoll) played with everybody. Basically we were trying to manage Kopy’s ice time.”
In the past four playoff games, the Kings have played a total of 272 minutes and 27 seconds, which is actually the equivalent of more than 4 ½ games and they’ve held a lead for only 17:51 of that time. Playing from behind are really hard minutes to play. Your top players often end up getting overplayed and you’re pressing the issue more than a team that has a lead of a couple of goals.
“It’s definitely not where we want to be,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “I think going back to Game 3 against Chicago, (having) the lead not only does it give us breathing room in the game, but emotionally, mentally, it gives you a breather. Not that you sit back or relax in a game, but you don’t have that need to dig down deep and find a way to pull out a game again game after game.”
There's also the fact that this trend is not limited to the Kings. There have been more than 20 two-goal comebacks in the playoffs this season, which is in stark contrast to the Dead Puck Era when a lead like that was almost insurmountable.
"For our team, it's just a result of us being together for a long time," Brown said. "I think that goes a longer ways than most people think. When it gets really hard, really tough, you know the guy next to you really well. You can rely on each other in ways that a team that is just forming or getting together...you don't necessarily have that trust built up to weather the storm when you need to."