Hangovers come in all shapes and sizes. From movies, to self-inflicted, to the Stanley Cup version. The Los Angeles Kings have been in on two of the above but are furiously attempting to avoid the third.
Most hockey fans have seen members of the Kings, including Winkler's Dustin Penner, play cameo roles in TSN's version of The Hangover. And we're not going out on too much of a limb in guessing there were some sore heads after Stanley Cup parties last summer.
But the most serious of hangovers, that which prevents a team from winning a repeat championship, is what the Kings are dealing with right now. To repeat in this day of professional sports has become very difficult and in the NHL the last team to do so was the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings. Fatigue, self-satisfaction and free-agent paydays are all contributing factors that prevent teams from repeating.
The Kings advanced to the Western Conference semifinals with a first-round win over the St. Louis Blues and held a 1-0 lead over the San Jose Sharks heading into Thursday's Game 2.
Los Angeles GM Dean Lombardi was able to keep his team mostly intact and there has been no presence of a mental malaise through the regular season and early going of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Kings waged a physical battle with the Blues and came back from a two-game deficit to win in six games. Opportunistic goal-scoring, rock-solid goaltending and a balanced, four-line attack have the Kings looking like a team capable of repeating.
Kenora native Mike Richards leads the Kings with seven points off one goal and six assists. Richards, who spoke to the Free Press on Thursday morning, says the lockout and shortened regular season may have provided the Kings with an edge.
"It's a long season when you end in late June and then have to start it all up again in September. The lockout may have given us a chance to avoid that hangover teams get," said Richards. "I think it shows in our play and that we've got lots of energy right now. After the Bruins won, I can remember watching them and thinking they were tired by the end of the next season. But we're not showing any of that. The lockout gave us a few extra months, and that extra break really went a long way for us."
Richards also believes the way the Kings are built could play a role in the quest for back-to-back titles.
"Our balance and depth through four lines makes us better. We keep our forward lines under 20 minutes a night and in the high teens, and that keeps us fresh and energized late in games. It's a real advantage to be able to use four lines all the time," said Richards, who has scored 163 goals and 425 points over 575 games in his eight NHL seasons.
Richards and linemate Jeff Carter were both shipped out of Philadelphia in the summer of 2011, Richards to Los Angeles and Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets. They were reunited in L.A. at the trade deadline when Lombardi brought in Carter to add some punch to his lineup. Now they are among the best secondary scoring units in hockey. The Kings use Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown together on one top line and then Carter and Richards on the other.
"People were baffled when we first started playing together last year why there wasn't instant chemistry and we weren't scoring at a high rate, but we both played centre in Philadelphia and were hardly ever on the ice together," said Richards. "It took a little while, but over the last year and a bit we've become more comfortable with one another on the ice. Jeff is definitely a pretty good player to play with and I just try to get him the puck as much as possible and I know he's trying to shoot as much as possible. It works."
The Kings have stars including the forwards mentioned, defenceman Drew Doughty and goalie Jonathan Quick. But this team doesn't play Showtime Hockey. They are not a glitzy hockey version of basketball's Los Angeles Lakers.
"This is Hollywood, but we're not a Hollywood team. Dean (Lombardi) wanted to get some key players and then build a team around them. He's done a good job of keeping the nucleus together," said Richards. "We're a tough team to play against. We're big and we hit and we work hard. That's our strength. Teams come into our building and know it's not going to be an easy night."
Richards also believes the man on the bench, head coach Darryl Sutter, is just the right mix of personality to lead this group.
"He's definitely a demanding coach. I wouldn't say he's a hard coach to play for, but he's a hard coach to please. He gives it to you straight, and he can give you a pat on the back or a kick in the ass. I think it's what we needed here last year. When Terry (Murray) was here, there was too much patting on the back and not enough kicking in the ass," said Richards. "Darryl's done a good job of that. He's obviously got a reputation for being a hard-ass. He knows how to push everybody's buttons and how to get the most out of players. Sometimes you want to choke him, but he'll also tell you when you're doing things well."
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