Kings coach Darryl Sutter won't allow players to get overconfident. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
NEWARK, N.J. — As an NHL player, Darryl Sutter couldn't afford to become complacent. He didn't have the raw talent some of his five hockey-playing brothers possessed, yet he became an acknowledged leader during a solid NHL career that was cut short by injuries.
As a coach, Sutter has brought that same drive to the Kings' locker room and bench. Any player who lets up or shows signs of smugness will hear a bark from Sutter and feel a not-so-gentle nudge in the ribs from the player in the next locker stall.
"There's always reminders, mostly from Darryl," Anze Kopitar said. "As we all know, he's a pretty hard guy, so he always keeps us honest and accountable. That's one of the main things he brought into the dressing room when he came in."
It was no surprise, then, that a day after the Kings defeated the New Jersey Devils in the opening game of the Stanley Cup Final -- while replays of Kopitar's dazzling overtime goal were still appearing on highlight shows -- players insisted they weren't satisfied because they haven't accomplished anything yet.
The emotional high of their 2-1 victory wore off quickly, defenseman Drew Doughty said Thursday afternoon, and his teammates echoed that sentiment as they spoke to reporters at the Prudential Center.
"Even though it's a big win, we've got to go into that next one as if the series is starting all over again. It's 0-0 and we've got to get that first win on the road," said Doughty, who got the second assist on Kopitar's winner by getting the puck to Justin Williams, who sent Kopitar in on a breakaway.
"I know that's what all of us are focusing on, and Darryl's going to make sure it doesn't slide."
They've had this attitude since Sutter took over in late December, responding to his positive reinforcement and consistent rewarding of effort.
With Kopitar's line largely ineffective early in Wednesday's game, Sutter gave extra ice time to the energetic fourth line, the Kings' most dangerous trio until Williams sent Kopitar in alone for that fake-and-freeze move on Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur.
Players appreciate that recognition. Fourth-liners Brad Richardson, Colin Fraser and Jordan Nolan each got postseason-high ice time, with Richardson playing 11 minutes and 37 seconds, Fraser -- who scored the Kings' first goal -- getting 11:28 and Nolan playing 11:26.
To Sutter, it was a simple decision.
"We did have some sluggish guys and it was at the top end of our skill set in terms of players," he said. "It doesn't bother me to play, I don't call them our fourth line, I call it Colin Fraser and whoever is playing with him. So if they're on, they can play against anybody."
They were standouts in a game that was often tedious and played in oppressive humidity, yet became the Kings' ninth straight road victory during these playoffs and 13th win in 15 games of a dominant postseason run.
Predictably, players deflected praise for their streaks and records. Anyone listening to goaltender Jonathan Quick answer questions about Game 2, to be played Saturday, might have thought the Kings had lost the opener to the Devils.
"We've got to outwork teams and I think we've done that up to this point as far as finding ways to win games, stuff like that. But these guys work really hard and it's going to be a challenge," he said. "If we don't outwork them, we're not going to have a chance ...
"We've got a great opponent right now and if we do get overconfident, they're definitely going to take advantage of us. So we've got to go into every game with the same mentality in everything we get."
So they never sit back, never let up, never get complacent.
"We can't get ahead of ourselves. We can't get big-headed. We got into that next game and we're overconfident and they win it, the series just completely changes, rather than going up 2-0, it's 1-1," Doughty said.
"And Darryl continues to harp on it over and over. Our captains do it as well. Everyone just knows, we made it here through hard work and being confident, not big-headed."