NEW YORK — Accustomed to clawing back from deficits, the comeback Los Angeles Kings now must figure out how to play with a series lead.
Despite not leading for a single second in this Stanley Cup final, Los Angeles has a two games to none lead on the New York Rangers. That’s not something players are proud of, but somehow it has worked.
“We find ourselves in the same situation reguritating the same mumbo jumbo every time,” winger Justin Williams said. “We’re in a results-oriented league, and the results are we’re up 2-0. I don’t care how we got here.”
The Kings have gotten to Monday night’s Game 3 by winning four times in these playoffs after falling behind by at least two goals. One more would tie the record set by the 1987 Philadelphia Flyers.
Adept, if not comfortable, at coming from behind, the bigger question for the Kings is how they’ll handle what on paper is a comfortable lead over the Rangers through two games but based on the play is far from it. They already saw their 2-0 series lead over the Anaheim Ducks in the Pacific Division turn into a 3-2 deficit, and they’re hopeful that history won’t repeat itself.
“Momentum is a big part of playoff hockey and once a team has it, it’s important to try to switch the tide in your favour as quick as possible,” forward Dwight King said. “The longer you let that go, like in the Anaheim series, they get a little more confident and feeling good about their game. When you’re playing a team that’s got that going for them, it’s a little tougher to defend.”
The Rangers sound like a confident group because they’ve gone stride for stride with the seasoned Kings and could believe they’re a couple of bounces away from being up 2-0. Coach Alain Vigneault has been satisfied with his team’s play save for one period, and his players are attempting to focus more on the positives on the ice than the deficit in the series.
“I think we played two good games over there,” forward Mats Zuccarello said after landing in White Plains, N.Y. “I think we played the best hockey.”
Maybe the Kings haven’t played their best hockey, and certainly they haven’t at the start of games. They’re the first team in NHL history to win three straight playoff games after trailing by two goals, having also done it in Game 7 of the Western Conference final against the Chicago Blackhawks.
Williams said he can tell a lot about teammates from studying their faces in trying times.
“You can read a lot (about) what someone’s thinking by just looking at their face,” he said. “Between the second and third (Saturday) night I looked around and I didn’t see anyone scared. I saw a prepared team that knew what they had to do.”
That’s thanks in large part to being here before. From Williams to captain Dustin Brown, defenceman Drew Doughty, centre Anze Kopitar and goaltender Jonathan Quick down the roster, this core group has experience going deep in the playoffs.
The Kings also now have a resume full of multi-goal comebacks, which hasn’t necessarily made digging out of holes easier but provided perhaps some muscle memory when playing from behind.
“I feel together as a team we’ve been through almost all of them you can imagine, and we’ve pulled through,” Williams said. “So when we’re down, do we feel comfortable? No, we don’t feel comfortable. But we feel like we’re able to come back. And belief is a very underrated attribute, and we have that going on within our team right now.”
Experience from the 2012 Cup run could serve Los Angeles well right about now. That Kings team went up at least two games to none in every series on the way to the franchise’s first championship.
In these playoffs, they haven’t been as much of a buzz saw. They fell behind 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks in the first round before pulling off the improbable series comeback and needed seven games against the Ducks and Blackhawks, too.
What the Kings haven’t had in the same vein as their 2012 domination they’ve made up for with resilience. Coach Darryl Sutter sees experience as the root of that.
“We’ve played a lot of hockey in May and June over the past three seasons,” Sutter said. “For us, you’re never not of the belief that you can’t come back or you’re not going to win.”
The Rangers, who came back from being down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metropolitan Division final, share that same belief. Vigneault was short and to the point on what he thought New York needed to do to get back into this series: win Game 3 at Madison Square Garden.
“We need to hold serve,” Vigneault said in White Plains. “We’re back in our building. We’ve played some good hockey. We might feel that we deserve a better outcome than what we have right now, which is trailing by two games. But it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day we got to take care of business tomorrow, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
If anyone understands the mental approach of coming back, it’s the Kings, who haven’t led for over 228 straight minutes dating back to the conference final. And while the Kings are quick to point to results, they can’t believe they’ve broken the Rangers’ spirit already.
“We should know that more than anybody, that it’s tough to put a team down,” Williams said. “Especially when you’re playing for the Stanley Cup, it’s going to be hard to put a team down. But we need to try to step a little bit more on the throat tomorrow.”
Stepping on the Rangers’ throat might as well be code for don’t fall behind by two goals again.