Los Angeles Kings Head Coach Darryl Sutter and his staff had a full week to put together a game plan that would allow his club the best chance to beat the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. What he came up with was something straight out of an old school Mite playbook, and that served the LA Kings and their fans just fine.
Sutter is widely respected throughout the National Hockey League and with over 900 games behind the bench and a trip to the Cup Finals with Calgary in 2004, few question his ability to figure out a winning formula. Last night, after what was no doubt a full week of film study and comparing strengths and weaknesses between his team and the team from the desert who has been wildly successful this spring, Sutter appeared to find a hole in the Coyotes system the Kings could exploit.
Walk into any local youth hockey rink and you will inevitably hear a coach shouting to his 8 year olds from the bench “spread out” throughout a game. Same thing in youth soccer. For every young player on the ice/field, the puck or ball quickly becomes the sole object of desire. The result is often massive pile-ups and understandably slowed play. We are taught as youth players the importance of not bunching up, that if you stay away from the puck and those piles, the puck will eventually find you and when it does you will have all the time and space that players desire at any level. In youth hockey, if one player can somehow make a cross ice pass in the direction of another, it typically takes so long for the opposing team's five skaters (typically all still on the pile) to react that the attacking player who wisely stayed wide could probably take two breakaways before being confronted again. Makes total sense.
As we get older and the level of play improves, buzz words with regards to positioning on ice slowly shift from “spread out” to “puck support.” The idea of outnumbering your opponents in battles that occur all over the ice becomes increasingly important. Rather then moving away from the play as we were taught when we were younger in hopes of that one Hail Mary pass, we are instructed to come back to the puck. In the NHL, teams generally make progress and move up the ice with a series of 5-10 foot passes instead of the 85 footers that used to create chances. The deep pass is typically no longer an option as defensive players are bigger, faster, and most importantly, seldom caught out of position.
Back in November, Guy Boucher’s Tampa Bay Lightning showcased the value of quality defensive positioning perfectly when they sat back patiently in their 1-3-1 and challenged the Flyers to move their feet and make the numerous and necessary short passes in 5-10 foot increments all the way up the ice. The result for fans (and Gary Bettman) was the most painful 30 seconds in NHL history.
For all of the things the Phoenix Coyotes did have to be successful in the first two rounds, the one thing they did not employ was a passive and patient defensive style of play and Sutter knew that. The result in Game 1 was a series of stretch passes that led to top speed rushes throughout the night for the Kings leading to numerous scoring chances. Finally in the third period, one of those chances resulted in what would turn out to be a game winning goal by LA Captain, Dustin Brown.
It wasn’t quite the 85 foot prayer we see at the youth hockey level. Brown still had to move back across the ice in the direction of the puck, sort of. But he did so while accelerating towards top speed all while continuing to head up ice. Slava Voynov hit Brown with a beautiful 60 foot tape-to-tape pass that sprung the Conn Smyth candidate on a break that would lead to a world class snap shot and the goal that would prove to be the difference as the Kings won their 6th consecutive road game in these Playoffs.
In all likelihood, Coyotes Coach Dave Tippett will make the necessary adjustments and the number of home run passes leading to scoring opportunities will be limited Tuesday night for the Kings when they play Game 2 in Phoenix. That is what great coaches do in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Each prepares rigorously for his opponent. When they win, they often deflect praise and quickly move to what his guys need to do to be successful in Game 2. Then they get back to work. When they lose, they don’t necessarily shy away from the blame when asked about the methods that beat them that night, but there is always a race to get to the “I’m not worried about what the other team did. I’m worried about my guys doing what they need to do to be successful” portion of the interview. That’s how press conferences this time of year in the National Hockey League work.
Sutter signed a multi-year deal to lead the Kings back in December. With the club’s recent success, it doesn’t appear Dean Lombardi and his staff will be in any hurry to break that contract anytime in the near future. But when they do, and no empire lasts forever, Sutter could probably bring his notes from Game 1 of the Western Conference to any rink in the country and pick up where he left off last night with his own Mite team. With a “W”.