This Unfamiliar Feeling
I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent most of this postseason feeling like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix. I know what I’m seeing is real but I’m having a hard time believing it.
The Kings’ new coach is quite honestly brilliant.
He is a hockey player through and through. OK maybe he’s a dairy farmer through and through, but he’s definitely a hockey player second. And he might be a psychologist third. I was thinking this even before reading this great piece from Rich Hammond about Darryl Sutter with quotes from some players.
He can put himself in the skates of every player on the team because he has been there before and knows how to relate to what is going on in the players’ brains. That’s the main reason Penner is producing now- because he doesn’t feel like shit all the time for not doing the right things. The coach isn’t just calling him out all the time, he is calling him out at selected times, and encouraging him the rest of the time.
What he is actually doing is un-mindfucking them.
Terry Murray had this team playing like a bunch of hockey zombies- putting their skates in a track on the ice and staying in their lanes and shooting the puck from anywhere across the red line. Any criticism was “be here not there” or “move the puck there next time” or our favorite, “put the puck on net.” There was never conceptual analysis, as in, “here is why you should go here.”
Darryl Sutter is making them play defense-first hockey, but he isn’t harping the mechanics of the system after every shift. He is putting himself in the moment of the competitive atmosphere, which is especially important in playoff hockey.
It has never been more clear that the Kings are mentally prepared and focus to compete. I won’t even cite the evidence from last season which indicates that they were not mentally focused to win in the playoffs, which in some cases only required holding on to leads.
Now, the Kings have won eight of their last nine games. They’ve knocked off the top two seeds in the Western Conference playoffs. Against the Blues, they held the lead for the entirety of all but eight minutes of the four games in the series.
They have finally been able to keep the boot on the throats of their opponents, and have not even struggled in the process. The line combinations haven’t changed. The players have all filled their expected roles: scorers scoring, defenders defending, grinders grinding, goaltender keeping the team in the game, and leaders leading. How is this happening?
To everyone but the fans who have watch this team struggle with these concepts all season, this doesn’t come as a huge surprise. The Kings were a team many predicted would be here before the season started. They have had the roster for it all season. Jeff Carter essentially replaced (and upgraded) the injured Simon Gagne, and many agree that Slava Voynov is an upgrade from the departed Jack Johnson. That was no accident. The team management obviously pays attention to advanced statistics.
Down from the front office and onto the ice, the players feel comfortable in their roles, and they feel confident that the other players will do what they are supposed to do. Not just that they will be where they are supposed to be on the ice or pass when they are supposed to or shoot when they are supposed to. That they will perform. They will push. They will fight.
These players know what they are each capable of and what each other are capable of. They have earned the confidence they play with, but they respect not only their opponents, but what it takes to win.
When it comes to hockey in Los Angeles, unfamiliar is good.