LOS ANGELES -- The records had become too obvious to ignore, too disproportionate to continue to discount.
While the Los Angeles Kings had won a franchise-record seven straight playoff games on the road, including all five of their road games this postseason, they had won only one of their previous seven home playoff games, including losing five straight heading into this year.
The Kings had already done their best to make sure they would be on the road as much as possible this postseason, having lost their last two games of the regular season to finish as the No. 8 seed. Perhaps the Kings could have gone a step further, and put a call into NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and suggested they play all their playoff games on the road. After all, there is no shortage of games going on at Staples Center these days with the Lakers, Clippers and Kings in the postseason together for the first time since 1993.
Since that wasn’t going to happen, Kings coach Darryl Sutter decided to do the next best thing.
He tried to turn Los Angeles into St. Louis.
He made the team stay in a hotel the night before Thursday's game. He held the morning skate at Staples Center, which is the first time the Kings have done so in years after usually holding them at the training facility in nearby El Segundo. He held team meetings at the hotel and paired players with the same roommates they have on the road.
Sutter essentially did everything but bring the thunderstorms and Gateway Arch to downtown L.A. in an effort to make his team feel as if it were in St. Louis instead of Los Angeles.
The plan worked Thursday as the Kings defeated the Blues 4-2 to take a commanding 3-0 lead in their Western Conference semifinal series. Sutter will continue the road-at-home practice before Game 4 on Sunday, with the team staying at the same hotel and going through its morning skate at Staples Center.
Sutter downplayed the strategy before the game, saying, “I haven’t been downtown very much, so I thought I’d ask the guys if they wanted to get down here. They didn’t mind. Nice hotel.’’ After the game, Sutter downplayed the strategy even more, saying, “I honestly couldn’t tell you” whether the strategy worked and “it’s none of your business” if the Kings do it again.
Needless to say, despite his usually grumpy demeanor, Sutter will continue to use this road strategy until it doesn’t work, no doubt hoping to keep his players in local hotels and feed them Philly cheesesteaks or New York pizza to replicate their possible road surroundings during the Stanley Cup finals.
“I think it helped,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who had three points Thursday. “We rarely get to practice at Staples. We had a nice pregame skate here this morning. We ate pregame at the hotel, and stayed at the hotel with our roommates and stuff like that. It definitely felt like a road game before we got here, but when we stepped on the ice, our fans were unbelievable. It was so loud in there, so it felt like a home game again, but we made sure we played with that road mentality on the ice.”
Since coming to Los Angeles to replace Terry Murray, who was fired in December, Sutter has often remarked about the difficulty of playing in a city not known for being a hockey hotbed. It isn’t hard to get focused on a playoff game in Vancouver or St. Louis, but it can be challenging when you’re sipping mimosas on the beach after a morning skate.
There is no question this team plays better when it's uncomfortable. The Kings play with more fire when they’re cooped up in a hotel room with a roommate and not in their plush pads in Manhattan Beach. They play with more focus when they are nowhere near their training facility and familiar surroundings. Even on the ice, the Kings ignore advantages other teams would relish. They were 0-for-30 recently on power-play opportunities in the postseason before Mike Richards scored the first of the series for the Kings with 9:31 remaining in the second period. Richards’ goal, which hit Blues goalie Brian Elliott and then snuck in short-side, was similar to the goal he had in Game 1 of the Vancouver series.
While the Kings are having a hard time scoring on the power play, they have scored four short-handed goals in their first seven playoff games after scoring only nine in 82 regular-season games.
Again, these guys don’t like to do anything easy. The bigger the obstacle, the bigger and harder they play.
Against the Blues on Thursday, they played as if they were in the Scottrade Center instead of Staples Center. They scored first, as they did in Game 2 in St. Louis. When the Blues finally got on the board in the second period, the Kings responded with a goal of their own 40 seconds later, much the way they did in Game 2 when the Blues tried to cut into the Kings’ lead.
It was easily the best home playoff game the Kings have had in a decade and likely will mean the Kings will continue to treat home games like road games. The strategy brought a smile and some eye rolls to many Kings players still getting used to the idea of staying in a hotel with a roommate while at home, but they won’t complain as long as they keep winning.
“Maybe it had an effect, maybe it didn’t, who knows?” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “I’m sure we won’t change it. This time of year, you do whatever you have to do.”