LOS ANGELES -- After the Los Angeles Kings lost Game 6 of the Western Conference Final to the Chicago Blackhawks, Kings coach Darryl Sutter was asked what he said to his team.
"Fly at 11 [a.m.]," Sutter deadpanned.
With a 4-3 loss, Los Angeles was headed back to Chicago for Game 7 after the Blackhawks rallied from a 3-1 series deficit.
It might have been hyperbole, but it also wouldn't be surprising if that's all Sutter really said.
Sutter, as Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell aptly put it, has a way of making his players "comfortably uncomfortable," and he's had to toe that line more than ever during this 21-game run to the Stanley Cup Final that starts against the New York Rangers on Wednesday at Staples Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).
Sutter's ability to keep his players focused and level-headed has rung true particularly because the Kings have taken the most resistant path possible to their second Cup Final in three years. From a 3-0 deficit in the Western Conference First Round, a 3-2 second-round deficit, and a blown 3-1 lead in the conference final, the Kings became the first team to win three Game 7s (all on the road) to get to the Final.
Famously one of seven brothers, Sutter had to face a lot more adversity growing up in Viking, Alberta, and that manifests itself in how he provides steady footing in heavy storm.
"My brothers and my dad and my mom [taught me] about the importance of teamwork," Sutter told NHL.com. "When you're in a big family and you don't have much, then you learn about teamwork, and that's probably no different than a locker room.
"In a locker room [there's] 25 men and you don't let anybody in. There's a circle there. You're on the island with them. Don't let anybody on the island."
After the Kings fell into that 3-0 hole against the San Jose Sharks, Sutter sat down with his assistant coaches and dissected his team's miscues. They corrected them in a clinical manner, which general manager Dean Lombardi said was "taking the emotion out of it."
Days later, a reporter asked Sutter how they came back to win that series, and he counted to four on his hand. If Sutter's nonsensical, mumbled speech was the story of the 2012 Cup run, then this run has been marked by awkward silences and one-word answers. Sutter is moody, the ultimate contrarian, and he takes umbrage with any question that starts out with a premise about his team.
But catch him on a good day and his words are gold.
"I think what gets lost here is, again, the outward demeanor or whatever perception is so far removed from how much he is as a players' coach," Lombardi said. "Does it come out in a press conference? Probably not. Go back to the day I hired him, that whatever people thought of him, the most important thing that confirmed my belief that this was the right way to go was how many texts I got from players that played for him, players that he was probably hard on."
Lombardi concurred that this probably is Sutter's best coaching season. He had to overcome a serious groin injury to goalie Jonathan Quick and the ineffectiveness of forwards Mike Richards and Dustin Brown in the regular season. Sutter put together the Tanner Pearson-Jeff Carter-Tyler Toffoli line and moved Justin Williams to the third line for balance.
Sutter passed Scotty Bowman and Pat Burns for most Game 7 wins in NHL history Sunday against Chicago.
"The beauty of Darryl, though, is that … he's fully cognizant that players win," Lombardi said. "He never loses sight of the fact that he can lead them and set the tone, but they have to execute. I think the players, in the end, really appreciate that. And that's just the truth. But in terms of what Darryl stands for, it's very much part of what you see."
There also is that comfortably uncomfortable aspect.
"He's understands the game very well as a coach," Mitchell said. "I've played a while now with a few different coaches, but I think his strength is as master motivator. He's a really good motivator. He'll push the buttons necessary to make sure people are realizing the significance of the moment or the time. That's what he does best."
Mitchell paused and said with a smile, "I can't really talk about what he does [in the dressing room]."
Other Kings won't reveal much either. No one wants to breach the inner circle.
But did Sutter really just say "Fly at 11" after Game 6?
"Some things need to be said, and some things are better left unsaid," Williams said. "There's no coaching handbook on what to say after tough losses. Sometimes saying nothing is perfect."
Author: Curtis Zupke | NHL.com Correspondent