ST. LOUIS -- The architect of last year’s Stanley Cup championship squad watched attentively as his troops went through their drills during an optional practice Wednesday.
The military analogy is appropriate in this case, because Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi is an avid history buff who adores the comparisons between war and sport and the kind of self-sacrifice, leadership and guts it takes to achieve goals in both.
And so as The General watched practice Wednesday, you could just see the wheels spinning in his mind, his thoughts no doubt knee-deep in the test his team now suddenly faces just one game into the playoffs.
You want a history lesson? His Kings were never once behind in a series last spring, going up 3-0 in all four rounds en route to a well-earned championship.
The script has already changed just one game into the playoffs a year later. And that’s OK, Lombardi said. Standing back and looking at the big picture, it’s not such a bad thing, he figures, for his team to learn how to win in a different fashion.
“We’re going to have to deal with that eventually -- you’re going to have to learn how to win a long series,” Lombardi told ESPN.com outside his team’s dressing room. “Not that you want one, but it’s part of the growth process to learn how to deal with another level of pressure. We really only experienced that once in Game 6 last year [of the Stanley Cup finals]. So here you go. Here it is.”
Not that he’s surprised at what the St. Louis Blues pulled off in Game 1 on Tuesday night, a dominant performance if not on the scoreboard certainly in terms of physical play and puck possession.
Now, normally you’d say that’s a typical reaction from the losing team after dropping Game 1, saying they knew they were in for a tough series. But in this case I can vouch that even before Game 1 was ever played, a conversation with Lombardi during practice Monday revealed his utmost respect for the Blues and the huge test that he believed awaited his team.
And so on Wednesday, in the wake of the Game 1 loss, it is with absolute honesty that the Kings GM talked about the respect his team had for his first-round foe.
“This series last year was probably our toughest,” Lombardi said. “That was not a 4-0 series. Even in the regular season this year, these games are always hard. From top down, both teams are similar, both coaches believe in the same things. I don’t think there’s any question that our players respected this team.
“And so, I don’t know that it’s a wake-up call, per se, but I think it’s a clear reminder what it takes to win in the playoffs. Nobody, to a man, thought this would be easy.”
If there’s a wake-up call here for the players, coach Darryl Sutter said Wednesday, it’s not as much in losing a game but rather in the manner in which they lost.
“What grabs their attention is that they know several of our players can play better,” he said. “We got to overtime with really two lines and four defensemen. You’re not going to win very many games doing that.”
But if you’re looking for any signs of a frantic group after just one loss, even despite never being down in a series last spring, you came to the wrong dressing room.
This was a relaxed looking bunch, Mike Richards informing yours truly on the way out that a group of players was headed to the afternoon Cardinals baseball game to relax.
“The mood’s good,” said star defenseman Drew Doughty. “We’re down 1-0, but it’s all right. If we can get this win and go 1-1 back to L.A., that would be huge for us.”
And of course, that’s very true. A win Thursday night here at Scottrade Center, and the Kings go home confident and in good shape.
But for that to happen, they need to spend a lot less time in their own zone.
There wasn’t a single game last spring when L.A. was bottled up in their own end like it was Tuesday night by a ferocious Blues forecheck.
“We have to be quicker,” Doughty said. “They’re coming hard on their forecheck, they’re banging bodies, they’re creating those little turnovers. I think a lot of times when they created those turnovers we kind of went into panic mode and tried to make up for that mistake quickly.
"I think that’s the wrong thing to do; you have to sit back and find where your guy is and try to create your own turnover. That was the one area they really dominated us in. We didn’t get on our forecheck, which is one of the keys to our game. We need to do that in order to win the next one.”
Wave after wave, all four Blues’ lines hammered the Kings in their own zone. In particular, the fourth line of Chris Porter, Adam Cracknell and Ryan Reaves created pure chaos in the Kings’ zone with a relentless forecheck that left the Kings’ defense dizzy.
“They were coming in hard, and they can make plays, too. I don’t think many of us expected that from them,” Doughty said. “That could have been another downfall of ours. But now we know what they can do. We know they’re going to bend bodies.”
If you’re looking at that comment and thinking you’ve heard that before, it’s because you did -- a year ago. That’s when opposing teams were commenting on how the Kings’ fourth line was creating havoc with their physical play and forecheck, led by unheralded players such as Dwight King and Jordan Nolan.
“It’s the strength of our team, too, being able to play four lines,” Sutter said. “Our fourth line has been interchangeable quite honestly because some of the kids haven’t played very well. Those kids we brought up last year have not played very well this year. So we were hoping for them to play better now and better in a hurry.”
That’s about as blunt as it gets from the Kings' coach.
The Blues beat the Kings playing the same brand of game that won L.A. a championship last year. Now the Kings have to turn the tables Thursday night and find a way to get their forecheck going, impose their physicality on the Blues in the offensive zone.
“We need our guys doing the same thing to their defensemen,” Doughty said rather honestly. “Guys like [Jay] Bouwmeester and [Alex] Pietrangelo aren’t very physical guys. We need to bang their bodies and kind of take them out of the game so they can’t make their plays and rush up the ice.”
And that’s what will make Game 2 so compelling. The defending champs are determined to impose their game. They’ve been awoken. We will find out more about this Blues squad on Thursday night and how they handle that pushback from the Kings.
Buckle up, this series is just starting to get good.