The Kings were able to enjoy a day off Wednesday before getting back to work… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
Moments after center Mike Richards woke up Wednesday, he realized he could enjoy a rare and welcome luxury.
The Kings' seven-game playoff victory over the San Jose Sharks, completed on Tuesday with a 2-1 triumph at Staples Center, had launched them into the Western Conference finals and led Coach Darryl Sutter to give players a day off. After pushing himself through a compressed, 48-game season and 13 rugged playoff games Richards took advantage of the free time by staying in bed for nearly two hours.
"Just to unwind," he said. "It's nice just to relax and take your mind off it for a bit and give your brain a little bit of a rest."
A one-day respite won't heal all the bumps and bruises the Kings accumulated while reaching the halfway point of defending their Stanley Cup championship. They'll return to the ice in El Segundo on Thursday to prepare to face the Chicago Blackhawks, starting with back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday at the United Center.
But even a brief break was appreciated by the Kings, who averaged more than 41 hits per game to about 35 for their opponents.
"It's taken a lot to get to this point. Two grinding, grueling, tough, hard-hitting series," Richards said during a conference call Wednesday.
By now almost every player is nursing a bruise, sprain, muscle pull or worse. Center Jarret Stoll, who suffered a concussion on a hit by San Jose's Raffi Torres in Game 1 of the second round, has been skating but hasn't taken part in contact drills. His return depends on how he feels as he increases his activities.
NHL clubs aren't obligated to disclose injury information, leaving observers to guess what might be bothering someone who's off his game. Sometimes what appears to be a slump is merely that. If that's the case for the Kings' left wingers, they'd win an Olympic synchronized slumping contest.
Whatever players' injuries might be, the mental toll they've paid has been higher than it was a year ago, when they took a 3-0 series lead in all four rounds and lost only four games.
"It's been a tough year and I think the coaching staff has done a great job of giving us rest when we need it," Richards said. "I think the players have done a good job of not making any excuses or using any excuses and really just finding it and playing with what you got."
This year the Kings have been under pressure since they lost the first two games of their opening-round series at St. Louis and had to rally past the Blues. Eleven of the Kings' 13 playoff games have been decided by one goal; they're 6-5 in those games. To add to the tension, they haven't been exactly filling the net: they've scored 26 goals, two per game.
Good thing, then, that goaltender Jonathan Quick is reprising his MVP feats of a year ago and has compiled a goals-against average of 1.50. Defenseman Drew Doughty said he told teammates Quick is even better than during last year's Cup drive.
"He's just been standing on his head for us," Doughty said. "It's great to have him do that, but I think we have to back him up a little more. He's been having to make too many big saves."
Doughty said his own burden isn't too heavy. He's averaging 27 minutes 57 seconds' ice time, second among still-active players behind Zdeno Chara's 29:13 for Boston.
"I love playing that much," Doughty said. "I feel the more I play, the better I play."
The Kings' conditioning and stamina will be tested in the back-to-back games at Chicago and by playing a third game in four nights when the series shifts to Staples Center. Richards said he has played postseason games on two straight nights and considers this a matter of mind over sore muscles.
"You might be a little bit exhausted but it's mental, about getting down and finding it and trying to get your legs and be ready for it because you know it's obviously going to be a test," he said. "In playoff hockey, any playoff game is a grind. So, to carry that over a two-game, two-day stretch is going to be pretty important for us to stay with it, stay focused and manage our rest on these days that we do have off."