LOS ANGELES In a Stanley Cup final featuring two teams built byAmerican general managers, each with a U.S.-born captain, and inwhich an American goaltender has been outduelling a Canadian icon,would it kill the Yanks to throw us a bone? Can we have a show of hands for Los Angeles Kings defenceman DrewDoughty as the prospective Conn Smythe Trophy winner? Good Canadian boy. Wears a Toronto Blue Jays cap, and even had hisSlovenian teammate Anze Kopitar sporting one for interviews theother day. Rushed it end-to-end like Bobby Orr in Game 2 Saturday in NewJersey. Plays both end of the ice, hits, makes the 60-foottape-to-tape pass look easy, has a nasty edge to him, a heavy pointshot and can take forechecking pressure and turn it back on theopponent in a very big hurry. It's true that Kings captain Dustin Brown was the best player inthe first-round demolition of Vancouver, and Kopitar was colossalin the Western Conference final elimination of Phoenix, and goalieJonathan Quick has been solid throughout and occasionally terrific as in Saturday's 2-1 overtime win when the Kings' defensivegame has briefly gone sideways in stretches. |
And yes, of course there's a long way to go yet. It takes fourwins, and all that. But front to back, all four rounds, night in and night out, theKings' best player has been the preternaturally composed22-year-old rearguard from London, Ont., who's tied for the playofflead in points by a defenceman (in four fewer games than theRangers' Dan Girardi) and leads them all with a plus-12 rating,playing 26-1/2 minutes a night 32-plus in Game 2 against asteady diet of top-line forwards. Doughty's playoff tour de force has been in sharp contrast to hisearly-season woes, when after a training camp holdout that yieldedan eight-year, $56-million contract, he struggled mightily amidsuggestions that the money had gone to his head. Even internally,there were questions about his conditioning, his avoidance of thegym, his preparedness for games.
"I don't know if it was missing camp, or getting hurt afterfour games, but I just wasn't happy coming to the rink everyday," Doughty said Sunday. "I think I put all thatpressure on myself with the big contract, and I wasn't playing upthe standards I had. "Every single game, I knew everyone was expecting things ofme, I felt I needed to put up points, play well defensively, be aplus rating, and everything just kind of stirred up in my mind, andI just wasn't myself. It's hard to live up to those expectations,but now I've realized you've just got to put that in the back ofyour head, and relax and play the game." For the kid who at 20 had been the second-youngest Norris Trophycandidate ever behind only Orr, merely the greatest defenceman inhistory, and who might have been Canada's best player in the 2010Olympics, it was a major comedown and required a seriousself-examination. Things started to turn around when Darryl Sutter replaced TerryMurray as coach in mid-season.
"Terry was all X's and O's and Darryl's not that at all,"Doughty said. "He's all about preparation, hard work and beinga man out there. And once I finally understood that, it waseasy." "He's gone through a lot over the last few years. He's grownup a little bit, in terms of off-ice, taking care of himself. Eventhis year, his practice habits have progressively gottenbetter," said Dustin Brown.
"You see him in the weightroom more, and it's not someone dragging him in there like it usedto be. "(But) Dewey's a kid. He plays his best when he's having funand right now he's having loads of fun." Both Brown and Willie Mitchell, Doughty's former defence partner,think he is a better player now than in his year as Norris nomineeand Olympic gold medalist. "Everyone forgets he's playing against all the teams' topguys," Brown said. "Guys are trying to run him, left,right and centre." Not with a lot of success, though.
David Backes tried it in the St. Louis series, as did Shane Doanvs. Phoenix. The Devils are an aggressive forechecking team, andDainius Zubrus has been leading the charge physically, but theyhaven't been able to corral Doughty. "He can log those 27 minutes a night and settle the gamedown," said center Jarret Stoll.
"When the fire drill'son in your end, he can spin away from checks and break the puck outjust like that." The boy who grew up a Wayne Gretzky (Kings version) fan, withKings' souvenirs in his bedroom, was so thrilled when he wasdrafted second overall by them in 2008, he couldn't wait to beginliving up to the challenge L.A. GM Dean Lombardi had repeatedlylaid out for him. "Before I was even drafted I had a ton of meetings with theL.A. Kings staff," he said.
"Every single one of thosemeetings, Dean always said: 'Are you going to be that guy to helpus win that first Stanley Cup in franchise history?' "My answer was always 'Yes.' "This is the biggest time of the year, and I know in order forour team to be successful, I've got to be the best defenceman onthe ice every night. Enjoying every day, being in this moment inthe spotlight, you've got to embrace that." That's not a shy-guy speech. "He's a bright-lights player. Always has been," saidMitchell.
"When the game's on the line, he likes that stageand he wants to be the guy who makes the difference. You don't growinto that, I don't think. It's either in you or not in you. "I think that's been in him since he was a kid.
Lucky forus." firstname.lastname@example.org.
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