LOS ANGELES — There’s an adage in sports, at just about every level, that whatever level of experience a player has at the beginning of a season, he’ll be that much older, wiser and more able to handle situations by the end.
There is one exception. It is the postseason, and in hockey, it’s not something you can simulate or explain.
The youngsters who will be the future of the Kings have been through a good amount this season. Some have been here the entire season, while others have been called up along the way. They’ve learned, they’ve grown and they’ve developed resiliency, as shown Thursday night when they rebounded from a two-goal deficit and put the Edmonton Oilers on their heels for a while.
But they couldn’t finish. So Saturday night in Edmonton they will play a Game 7, following Thursday night’s 4-2 home loss. It will likely be an experience unlike anything they’ve had, be it in juniors or college or the AHL. Win or go home, on the road, and while they’re playing with house money and they’ve been a good road team all season, this is different.
“I think there’s logic” to the idea of growth over the course of a season, Kings coach Todd McLellan said Thursday night. “But there’s also experience under duress that some of them haven’t experienced.”
The veterans who have played in those moments – Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick and the injured Drew Doughty among the Kings’ Stanley Cup winners, and veterans from other teams like Philip Danault, Alex Edler and Olli Maata – can only say so much. Something like this, you have to live it to truly understand it.
Come to think of it, a Game 6 with an opportunity to eliminate someone is an experience that can’t be replicated. The Kings faced that last night, and when Connor McDavid shut up a roaring home crowd with a wraparound goal 1 minute and 40 seconds into the evening … well, you live and learn.
“I think maybe the thought of ending the series kind of crept into our (minds) and we started off a little tentative,” Kopitar said. “Credit to them; they obviously had a good start. … I mean, the older guys haven’t been there in a few years, and we have a few guys that haven’t experienced this at all. So it’s natural.
“But if you told us that we’ve got to win one game to advance, we’d certainly take the opportunity. So it’s not all that bad. We’re going to fly up there (Friday) and get ready for Game 7.”
It’s all a matter of perspective, I guess. Not many people outside of Kings headquarters in El Segundo expected this group to be in this position when the season began. Certainly, few outside of L.A. expected this group – especially without Doughty and the injured Viktor Arvidsson – to still be hanging around for a seventh game against the star-laden Oilers, and never mind that the regular-season difference between the teams was five points in the standings over 82 games.
What was it that the always opinionated TBS studio analyst Paul Bissonnette said about the Kings earlier in the series? “I couldn’t name five players on L.A.’s current roster,” he reportedly said. “No chance in hell McDavid and Draisaitl get bounced by an AHL team.”
Given that Biss played parts of seven seasons in the AHL, and the last three of those were with the Kings’ affiliates in Manchester and Ontario, I guess he does have a frame of reference.
Who knows what could happen Saturday night? The Kings were better on the road than at home during the regular season (23-11-7 to 21-16-4) and won two of the three previous games at Edmonton in this series. That alone suggests resilience and mental toughness, and bouncing back to win Games 4 and 5 after being blown out by the Oilers in Games 2 and 3 would be an indication as well. (Blown out, of course, being a conservative description of 6-0 and 8-2 losses.)
But there is pretending to play a Game 7 in the backyard rink as a kid, or shooting pucks or tennis balls at the net in front of the garage. It is, as we’ve said, something else to live it with all its attendant pressure.
“The big four that are here, and some that have played a lot of playoff games, get the moments,” McLellan said. “They get the mood swings, if you will, from night to night. The young players, sometimes they adapt really quick to it. Sometimes it’s overwhelming for them. But they have to experience it. It’s a different monster.”
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That said, he added, “We’re fine. We’ve played on the road. We’ve played in some really tough buildings against some really good teams all year on the road and played well. So it’s not like I have to walk in the room and sprinkle some pixie dust all over them to get them to play. They’ve played on the road and they feel confident there.”
Certain veterans in that room could point to three particular road Game 7s that went well – in San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago in 2014. You might not want to remind McLellan of the first one, since his Sharks were on the business end of the Kings’ comeback from a 3-0 series deficit en route to their second Cup, but it is experience that could be useful if the veterans felt the need for some storytime before Saturday night’s game.
“It’s been a while since we did,” Kopitar said, indicating he probably wouldn’t need to say anything.
“I think the younger guys have done a really good job of stepping into that role the whole season and certainly in this series. So they think as of right now, they know what it takes. And so I’m not worried about that at all.”
We’ll all find out Saturday night, won’t we?