LOS ANGELES -- These weren’t just momentum changers, they were game savers.
Two plays that may stand out long after this postseason ends were the tandem save by Los Angeles Kings center Anze Kopitar and goalkeeper Jonathan Quick midway through the final period Sunday afternoon, and the empty-net goal by Dustin Brown in the closing seconds of Game 4, allowing the Kings to complete the sweep of the Western Conference semifinal with a 3-1 victory against the St. Louis Blues at Staples Center.
The Kings are through to the Western Conference finals for just the second time in franchise history, thanks to their first-ever sweep in a seven-game series. No other eighth-seeded team in NHL playoff history has eliminated both the No. 1 and 2 seeds in the same postseason.
“We knew all along we had this team in here to do it,” said defenseman Drew Doughty. “Right now, we’re playing with a ton of confidence. Every single guy is having fun and every single guy is feeling part of the team, and that’s exactly what you need when you’re in the playoffs.”
The Kings dominated the opening period, but only came away with a 2-1 lead. They sat back in the second period, getting out-shot, 13-3, and that momentum change carried over to the third.
With just under 10 minutes remaining in the game, it appeared the Blues would finally get even. St. Louis forward David Perron shot into a crowd of players from about seven feet out. The puck glanced off some traffic and was re-directed toward the goal line. Quick dove to his left like a shortstop desperately trying to glove a grounder up the middle, but appeared to be too late. Ready to shove the puck across the goal line regardless was St. Louis defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, who was the first to converge on the crease.
Out of nowhere, Kopitar reached out with his stick and pushed the puck into the body of Quick as he lay prone on the ice. Quick covered it with his glove and held on as bodies piled on top.
“That’s a game saver right there,” Quick said. “That’s in the net if he doesn’t get there and block it.”
All Kopitar remembered was the puck sliding in slow motion towards the goal line.
“I just stuck my stick in there and was able to get a piece of it and kind of squeeze it underneath Quickie,” Kopitar said. “He was right there with his glove to cover it up.”
A sigh of relief seemed to rise above the noise inside Staples Center, but the game was hardly over. Inspired by the crowd, the Kings picked up the pace and pressured the St. Louis goal long enough to keep the Blues from pulling goalie Brian Elliott until about 45 seconds remained. That was enough time for Kopitar and Brown to find some room on a breakout. Kopitar slid the puck to Brown and he pocketed his second goal of the game and sixth of the playoffs with 24 seconds remaining.
Teammates throughout their careers in the NHL, Kopitar leaped into the arms of Brown and both tumbled to the ice in ecstasy.
“I knew it was over,” Brown said. “Kopi was probably a little more excited than me. I don’t think he realized how big he was. He jumped two feet in the air.”
On the other end of the ice, Quick felt like he could finally exhale.
“When we scored that empty netter there, that kind of put the nail in the coffin,” he said. “We could finally take a deep breath out and relax a little bit.”
Brown said the team will enjoy the victory tonight and take tomorrow off to recover, but then it’s back to the drawing board Tuesday. The Kings will play the winner of the Phoenix Coyotes and Nashville Predators. The Coyotes lead that series, 3-1, with a chance to clinch Monday in Phoenix.
“We’ll enjoy tonight but again, we don’t want to be known as the team that made it past the second round,” Brown said.