During a mostly close-to-the-vest series in which dual forechecks vie for the few inches to be had, the phone booth-tight defensive characteristics of the Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues require an unending attention to detail amidst a razor-thin margin for error – even if the play opened up enough to allow Los Angeles to claim a 4-3 victory Monday night.
Though L.A. benefited from some offensive freedom in its come-from-behind victory over St. Louis, the team’s defense efforts were still mostly representative of the overall airtight play this series has gravitated towards. The Blues didn’t record a third period shot on goal until 8:51 remained in the game.
Guiding the Kings through a match-up in which the slightest mental exhale leads to a scoring chance against is Darryl Sutter, an effective communicator able to raise both the team’s confidence and compete levels.
“I think he’s probably been the best coach I’ve ever had about getting that emotional level where it needs to be for individuals and the group,” captain Dustin Brown said.
The “emotional level” runs high and has produced some compelling physical play without overflowing like it has in other series – Montreal and Ottawa combined for 236 penalty minutes in their Game 3 Sunday evening. The Kings and Blues have combined for 335 hits in their first round series.
It was Sutter who said last week that “I don’t think there’s a whole lot that goes on after the whistle in the playoffs, unless you’re planning on going out early,” and his ability to maintain the appropriate emotional level stems from ceding more responsibility to the leaders in the dressing room more than any of his own fiery speeches.
“There are six or seven guys that are way more important in the room than I am,” he said. “They have more feedback and input at the end of the day than I do.
“You have to be the voice of them, not the voice of one.”
It’s a voice that has changed its timbre from earlier coaching stints in Chicago and Calgary.
“I think I’m a lot quieter coach, for sure,” Sutter said. “That doesn’t make it good or bad, quite honest. I think it cost us a too-many-men the other night. It was my fault. I think we’ve had three in the series. Two were puck luck ones where the puck comes to the bench. What are you going to do? But the other night, I don’t go down the bench yelling and hollering, and quite honest our crowd was helping us the other night, and I should have been a little bit more vocal.”
The mea culpa was a refreshing illustration of the accountability his players have come to associate his coaching style with.
“I think he’s honest, no matter who we’re playing,” Drew Doughty said. “If we play a good game, he’s honest. If we play a bad game, he’s honest. He doesn’t really change the way he approaches us or the game. Every time he wants the exact same things done.”
Sutter has made adjustments within the Western Conference Quarterfinals that have allowed the Kings to pull even in the series after dropping the first two games.
In a search for quick puck movement and the need to push the play and generate offense, Sutter inserted defenseman Alec Martinez back into the lineup for the first time since April 2. The move has paid off handsomely, with Martinez picking his spots wisely and accounting for assists on two of the team’s five goals since rejoining the blue line.
The adjustments have helped the Kings increase their five-on-five scoring, but it’s still the emotional preparation, according to Brown, that allows the team to produce surges within the game. Los Angeles erased an early two-goal deficit early in Game 4 and won a game in regulation in which it trailed heading into the third period.
It was the first playoff game the Kings won in which they trailed by two goals since Game 2 of the 2010 series between the Kings and Canucks.
“I think he’s an emotional guy more than any other coach I’ve had in the sense that the X’s and O’s have to be there, but it’s about your emotional attachment. He’s really good about bringing that to the forefront, because it’s really hard to play this game without that aspect of it. I mean, you can’t play at a high level if you’re not into it emotionally.”
He’s also consistent and direct in his approach towards getting the most out of his players.
“Well, I don’t think Darryl changes at all with the regular season or playoffs,” said Robyn Regehr, who was a member of Sutter’s Calgary team that came within a game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2004.
“Two of the biggest things that I think you’d say to describe him are, first of all, he’s demanding, and he also is not afraid to challenge both individuals and teams, and he does a good job of that. I think that’s one of his strengths, and he’s able to push the right buttons. That’s his job. That’s what he does.”
The “button-pushing” isn’t done with quite as much force in Los Angeles by Sutter’s own admission, and there’s a delicate balance in trying to find the right combination of systems execution tinged with emotional drive.
“I think that there has to be structure. There also has to be some freedom, too,” Sutter said.
“Is that a good change? When it works, it is.”