The Los Angeles Kings have won two Stanley Cups in the past three seasons, without ever finishing better than fifth in the Western Conference in the regular season. Today, the defending Cup champs are in a dog fight just to make the Top 8 and qualify for the post-season, typically beginning to find their game as the playoffs near.
“For sure it’s stressful,” said soon-to-be UFA centre Jarret Stoll. “People keep saying it, and we don’t want to hear it, to be honest, anymore. It’s an easy way out, ‘These guys will flip the switch.’ We’ve done it a couple of times, but we can’t rely on that.”
They can’t. But they do. Truly, these guys are the ultimate “flip-switchers” in recent history.
This just isn’t the same team in the regular season that it is come playoff time, when they relentlessly grind out physical, low-scoring wins — to the tune of 11 playoff series’ over the past three seasons. That is more spring hockey than any other NHL club, and perhaps the answer to why the Kings seem to be wavering this season.
“The last three or four years our goals against has been … in the Top 5. Winning games 3-2, 2-1. That’s what we were made of,” Stoll said. “Now, we’re giving up five goals here, four goals there… We’re not a team that’s going to score a lot, so we can’t play that way.”
There is also some cause and effect here, for teams that experience that steady diet of life-or-death playoff hockey. Playoff hockey is like a drug, and regular season hockey can, at times, be more like vegetable soup. It can alter a team’s competitive threshold.
“Individually, it’s a lot easier to get up for playoff games,” admits Drew Doughty, one of the leaders charged with figuring this out in L.A. “The atmosphere in the arenas is amazing. Just knowing that you could possibly be going on if you lose a game, lose a series … it brings out the best in every single player. That’s when we’re at our best.
“We can make it a lot easier on ourselves if we’d win a lot of games during the season. We need to know that, and change it.”
Head coach Darryl Sutter must be going crazy about the Kings inconsistency, right? Well, if you think Sutter goes crazy about anything, you don’t know Darryl. He’s got a steady hand on the Kings’ wheel and won’t even draw any comparisons from year to year with an ever-changing NHL roster.
“This is my fourth full year here. I think the best team we had was when Chicago beat us in the Conference finals (in 2013). We ran into injuries,” he said. “We’re not an overly talented team, first of all. We have to win the old fashioned way most of the time. We need Jonathan (Quick) to be great. When he is, we win. We’re not as good a team (as the Kings have been).
“But, we get in? We can win it.”
That’s what the rest of the NHL is thinking too. Nothing against the Flames or Sharks, but there are a whole whack of NHL clubs that would breathe a sigh of relief if Calgary or San Jose can finish ahead of Los Angeles.
The Kings road record ranks 23rd in the NHL and they’ll play 11 of their final 19 games away from the Staples Center. Stats be damned, who isn’t picking the Kings to make the playoffs?
Smiled Sutter: “I wouldn’t bet against us.”
HOW THE FLAMES GOT GIORDANO
Sutter was the Calgary GM who brought Mark Giordano to a Flames camp for undrafted free agents back in the summer of 2004. Giordano was a tout from Flames scout Tom Webster, and arrived at the camp to find a couple of guys named Deryk Engelland and Dennis Wideman also signed up. Giordano would ink a three-way pact with Calgary out of that camp — East Coast League-American League-NHL — and today he’s a Norris candidate.
“We just invited every 20-year-old who wasn’t drafted. You could do that back then,” Sutter recalls. “I remember Dennis Wideman was skating around. He came up to me and said, ‘Mr. Sutter. St. Louis phoned. They just offered me a contract.’ I said, ‘Mr. Wideman, you get off this ice and go sign that contract.’”
IGINLA MAY NEVER GET HIS CUP…
One of my all-time favourite players, Jarome Iginla, has not had the run in his free agent years that he would have hoped. Remember, Iginla left Calgary as a UFA at the 2013 trade deadline, choosing Pittsburgh over Boston. He’s played 27 playoff games in the years since, but no Cup finals. He won’t be adding to that total in Colorado this spring.
Who can forget the playoff journey Iginla took Calgary on in 2004, fighting, scoring and hauling the Flames all the way to that Game 7 loss versus Tampa Bay? His bout with Vincent Lecavalier in that Cup final got a lot of ink, but the one I’ll always remember was when he went after a much bigger Derian Hatcher at the end of a 5-2 Flames loss in Game 2 against Detroit. It was a pure mismatch in size, but Iginla gave Hatcher everything he could handle, plus some. That fight was a metaphor for the series, as Calgary eliminated the No. 1 seed Red Wings.
…BUT TIMONEN COULD
Kimmo Timomen said this week that he is definitely retiring after this one, last playoff run with the Chicago Blackhawks. What a story this old Finn is, having been told in August that he had blood clots in is right leg and lungs. Now he’s back, at age 39, for one last run at Stanley.
“Last summer when I got sick, I was back in Finland in a hospital bed, and they said you have to wait six months to see what’s going to happen,” Timonen told reporters in Chicago. “They said, ‘Well, you have to eat this medicine for six months, then you have a small chance to get back on the ice.’ So in that moment, I decided if that small chance happens the only thing I’m missing from my hockey career is a Stanley Cup. That was the only goal, (that) I would return to hockey. It wasn’t money. It wasn’t anything else that was missing.”
If Chicago is good enough to get to the 2015 Cup final, Timonen will be this spring’s Dave Andreychuk or Ray Bourque. You can’t find someone in hockey with a bad word to say about Timonen, who’ll pass the 1,100 game mark this month. From a reporter’s perspective, he’s one of the most cooperative, intriguing and insightful players we’ve run across.
KUDOS TO CHEVELDAYOFF AND THE JETS
The team out West that everyone is raving about these days is the Winnipeg Jets. They’re big, good, young and with Michael Hutchinson, they’ve got plenty of goaltending. Between the atmosphere inside that building in Winnipeg, and the pounding teams get when they step on the ice at the MTS Centre, the Jets are becoming that team everyone would rather avoid this spring.
For all of those who chastised GM Kevin Cheveldayoff for not making enough personnel moves sooner, take a look at his roster now. It’s good today, looks even better in the next couple of years, and is going to host playoff hockey in Manitoba for as far as these eyes can see. Bravo Jets.