Johnson: Path to a repeat no long as clear for Kings after losses in San Jose
This isn’t your grandfather’s Sharks team; rather it’s a new breed of squad built four lines deep
A year ago at this time, they were in the process of bulldozing across the playoff landscape like a colony of killer Siafu Ants marching imperiously through forests in Western Africa and the Congo.
A particularly virulent strain of plague that was choking the life out of every living organism it came in contact with:
The Black (And Silver) Death.
“This one is different, definitely,” L.A. Kings’ Anze Kopitar admitted to the Los Angeles Times prior to Tuesday’s 2-1 series-tying loss to the surprisingly rock-ribbed San Jose Sharks. “Last year by this time we were up 3-0.
“But every playoff run is different. I’m sure you ask any other guy and they’d say what happened last year, happened last year. You certainly gain some experience from that and you learn from it, but it’s a different ball game this time around.”
Yes, it’s most certainly shaping up that way.
It’s not that the Kings appear . . . vulnerable, all of a sudden. That’s not it, precisely. What they do seem, however, is infinitely less of a sure thing now, in trying to become the first franchise since the Detroit Red Wings in ’97 and ’98 to earn back-to-back Stanley Cup hoists.
Oh, they’re still built on sandpaper, coach Darryl Sutter has a well-earned reputation as a taskmaster at keeping the intensity level ratcheted high, the same cast is virtually intact (subbing Robyn Regehr in for Willie Mitchell) and last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick has been (after two costly glitches to open the St Louis series) fantastic between the pipes.
But that same sense of manifest destiny seems to be missing.
The Sharks, meanwhile, for so long derided as softer than a Kenny G sax solo, are brimming with confidence, realize now they’re not going to be ground into steak tartar, and can actually feel somewhat aggrieved not to be ahead three games to one in this series.
It would’ve been the easy thing, the Shark-like thing, after playing as well as they did in the first two games with nothing to show, to wilt under the injustice of it all.
They’ve outshot the Kings by a collective 129-101, or by an average of seven per night, and — most impressively — are showing to be more than able to stand up physically to L.A.’s relentlessly mulching ways.
When San Jose GM Doug Wilson dealt away his club’s two biggest bodies, Ryane Clowe and Douglas Murray, at or near the deadline, that possibility, quite frankly, didn’t seem at all feasible. Yes, the Sharks did manage to bump off a deplorably uninspired group of Vancouver Canucks in Round 1, but if the big, belligerent Blues — a team built on the Dean Lombardi blueprint, designed for four slaughterhouse rounds — couldn’t stand up to L.A.’s pitiless one-naked-bulb-in-a-dark-room interrogation, how on earth could the suddenly-smaller Sharks expect to?
Well, by committee, that’s how.
“This team’s a little bit different than it was in the past,” San Jose coach Todd MacLellan explained recently. “A few more characters are involved in the team. Probably, with all due respect to the players that are here and the ones that have gone, less name-like players. Stars. We used to build lines around some of those star players and there was a lot of pressure put on that group of players and when it didn’t go well it was on their shoulders and everybody else was off the hook. This year, with the characters that we have and the way we’ve built our lines, everybody is responsible. Not just the so-called stars.
“But worker bees have to work and the stars have to perform. From the trade deadline on we’ve had a pretty good mix, a belief that we can do it with the group that we have.”
Oh, Jumbo Joe and Patrick Marleau are still the centrepieces, along with Little Joe Pavelski. But defenceman-turned-winger Brent Burns, he of the well-watered Chia Pet playoff beard, has menaced the Kings throughout the four games, while the magnificent Logan Couture is out-Browning even captain Dustin. And Thornton is playing to his size and skill level.
L.A. can complain about breaks, such as the ridiculously quick whistle that cost Dustin Penner a goal in Game 4, and poor starts and this and that, but none of it alters the facts.
En route to piling up the requisite 16 wins and a first Stanley Cup championship in franchise annals, the Kings lost only four times. They’ve already dropped four this spring and we aren’t halfway home yet.
A year ago, they had more fun on the road than Crosby and Hope, ransacking Vancouver, St. Louis, Phoenix and New Jersey for 10 wins in 11 tries. So far, they’ve managed just one lonely W away from the Staples Center. The highly-influential Dustin Brown-Anze Kopitar-Justin Williams line is mired in a production funk.
Just enough to cause real concern.
The Black (And Silver) Death are, of course, quite capable of turning this series back on its head again, grinding out the next two games, the way they reeled off four in a row against the Blues in the opening round, and moving on to a conference final date against either Detroit or Chicago, their sass and swagger back in full flower.
But as Anze Kopitar acknowledged only a couple days ago, this has the feel of a different ball game. A harder, longer ball game.
One that’s hinting at extras. Not, like last year’s, over and done with by the seventh-inning stretch.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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