By Curtis Zupke - NHL.com Correspondent
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. – A curious case of denial seems to have infected the Los Angeles Kings during this remarkable plow through the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
To a man, they have downplayed or refused to acknowledge their brutally efficient path through the first three rounds – an 11-1 record going into Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday against the Phoenix Coyotes.
They have taken 3-0 series leads in all three rounds and, after never having swept an opponent in their previous 43-year history, the Kings can pull off a back-to-back sweep of the St. Louis Blues and Phoenix if they prevail in Game 4.
Jeff Carter revealed only a sliver of excitement at thinking about being one victory away from only the second Stanley Cup Final appearance in franchise history.
"I think a little bit," Carter said. "We've worked real hard to get to this point. Like I said, it's not going to be easy to win that Game 4. We know we're going to get their best effort, and we need to be ready."
Maybe it's the still-fresh message that coach Darryl Sutter has pounded into them: Don't think ahead and always strive for improvement. At least publicly, the Kings don't really find it special that, while the victories are hard-earned and difficult, they have not really been challenged.
Mike Richards said, "I probably would have smiled" if someone had told him in the beginning of the playoffs that they would be in this position. Then, of course, he launched into the team-speak of needing to get better.
This is new territory for Richards and most of the veteran group of Kings that have advanced to the finals. Richards and Carter were on a Philadelphia Flyers team that had to play two five-game series and a six and seven-game series in 2010. Even the dominating 2007 Anaheim Ducks team with Dustin Penner needed an epic six-game series win against the Detroit Red Wings on the way to the finals.
Rob Scuderi was on the 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins team that took 3-0 series leads in the first three rounds, only to succumb to Detroit in a seven-game final. In that regard the veteran defenseman has perspective on his teammates.
"I think the biggest mindset right now is to finish this series," Scuderi said. "You get up 3-0, and everyone starts looking ahead. I think one of the good things that this team has had is we've been able to stay grounded and focused on what we have to do and that's to hopefully close out the Phoenix Coyotes sooner rather than later."
Scuderi said he didn't take note of the "ease" of the path for L.A., which has trailed just twice in its past seven games and not for very long. It was down, 1-0, to Phoenix in Game 3 before it tied it 127 seconds later.
"I guess I don't think too much about that," Scuderi said. "It's nice that you'd rather have a lead in the series and have it be a battle constantly. The only thing that might be a little bit of a battle is when you have too much time off and you're trying to get right back at it … sometimes a little bit too much time off is a bit of a pain."
That would be a departure from Sutter's philosophy of using the extra rest. He believes teams benefit from the time to heal and the less energy spent traveling.
The first thing on Sutter's mind is another home game on a Sunday with a 12 p.m. PT start – the identical scenario to May 6 when the Kings closed out St. Louis. Sutter again will have the team stay in a downtown hotel the night before.
"We've worked real hard to get to this point. ...It's not going to be easy to win that Game 4. We know we're going to get their best effort, and we need to be ready." -- Kings' forward Jeff Carter
Sunday is so-called "Sportsageddon" with a Kings-Los Angeles Clippers doubleheader at Staples Center and the Amgen Tour of California finishing nearby at about noon [plus a Los Angeles Dodgers game up the freeway]. Sutter quipped Thursday night that "we've got about 60 hours of rest [coming up] – as long as nobody's in that bike race."
Still, he is concerned about the variables of an early game.
"We talked about it when we had the last one," Sutter said. "I don't know, to tell you the truth. You wait to see how you play. You always have those three or four guys that aren't you're perfect morning people. You kind of wait and see. I remember in the old days when there was a 1:20 start in Boston Garden. You got woke up in a hurry.
"You got to eat properly and so it's their timing, their routine and when they get to fuel in them. That's always an issue, because you don't want to get up too early."
L.A. has won two of three elimination games, and Carter said that closer experience can carry over to Sunday.
"Obviously we're a confident group right now," he said. "We're a pretty comfortable with being in this position. We've done it the past three rounds here. The guys are confident, relaxed. We'll be ready to go."