Stanley Cup Finals: LA Kings thriving in captain’s “zombie mode”
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Dustin Brown used a delicious phrase last week to describe the Los Angeles Kings’ seemingly inexorable march through the Stanley Cup playoffs, outworking and outlasting every opponent in their path.
According to their captain, the Kings have been in “zombie mode” while they chewed through San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago in three straight seven-game series, never getting more than 72 hours of rest between games for seven grueling weeks.
Brown’s brainy comparison still seemed apt after Los Angeles beat the New York Rangers 3-2 in overtime Wednesday in the Stanley Cup finals opener.
The Kings might not be as fast as their four playoff opponents, and they’ve encountered innumerable obstacles along the way. They still execute their relentless style of play with remarkable precision, and nobody has figured out how to stop them yet.
“We’re very comfortable in any situation we’re in as a group,” Brown said Thursday.
Game 2 is Saturday, giving the Kings another two-day rest — which is more than these zombies have needed lately.
The current Kings’ tenacity is unmatched in this franchise’s mostly mediocre history, and they’re becoming one of the most remarkable teams in recent NHL seasons.
Los Angeles has won nine seven-game playoff series in the past three years — one more than the Kings managed in their first 43 seasons of existence combined.
The Kings won an incredible seven elimination games in the first three rounds this spring, including four straight in their historic first-round rally past San Jose.
Even when the Kings found themselves one period or one shift away from elimination, their will never wavered — and neither did their determination to play responsible two-way hockey.
“It’s everybody taking pride, chipping in, helping each other out,” said Anze Kopitar, the NHL’s postseason scoring leader with 24 points.
“We have always played our best hockey when you push and pull guys together. That’s what it is, and that’s what we’ve been doing so far.”
It takes a heaping helping of brainpower to play in zombie mode, and the Kings have it. Los Angeles’ puck-possession game and defensive mindset are among the best in recent NHL history, as borne out both by advanced hockey statistics and the naked eye.
General manager Dean Lombardi put together a dressing room full of compatible players willing to play any role for team success.
Coach Darryl Sutter takes little credit for his players’ tremendous group will, but the Alberta farmer fostered it with a steady message and constant accountability.
“Every step they take, they’ve met so many challenges,” Lombardi said. “You’re really happy for those players, because you know how much they’ve put into it and how much they care. I see firsthand how they conduct themselves, how hard they work, how much they stick together. It’s special to see them be rewarded, but they’re fully cognizant that they’ve got some more work to do.”
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was around for the start of the Kings’ current playoff brilliance, much to his chagrin. His Presidents’ Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks were knocked out of the first round by eighth-seeded Los Angeles two years ago.
“They were a good team in the years past,” Vigneault said. “They’re a real good team now. It’s obvious they’ve got more experience. They play their game plan to a T, and they don’t deviate in any shape, way or form, so that makes it real challenging for the opposition.”
The Kings are custom-built for the postseason, even at the expense of regular-season success. They won the Stanley Cup after qualifying for the playoffs with two games to go in 2012, and they finished a distant third in the Pacific Division standings this season behind the Ducks and Sharks — before blowing out both California rivals in a Game 7.
The Kings take particular pride in their postseason proficiency, but that also means there’s only one achievement worth celebrating.
“I think there’s a mentality that goes, you know, do you want to be a division champion or a Stanley Cup champion?” Brown asked. “The way we play the game, it’s a tough game to play.
“There’s teams that get far more points than us during the regular season, but when it comes to playoff time, our type of style, our type of game we play, the players that we have, we become a really hard team to beat four times in seven games.
“It’s funny. When you look at Staples (Center), we don’t have banners all the way across (the rafters), but we have the banner we want. We’re in the process or in search of that next banner.”