Cross Checks: Dustin Brown

Kings' Brown dreaming of Cup celebration

June, 11, 2014
Jun 11
2:28
PM ET
NEW YORK -- The Stanley Cup will be inside Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.

The Los Angeles Kings will be able to hoist it with a victory in Game 4.

“I think it’s fair to say anybody who is not thinking about that going into the next game is not being honest,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said Tuesday. “At the same time, we’ve had the ability not to look too far ahead.

[+] EnlargeDustin Brown
Scott Levy/NHLI/Getty ImagesDustin Brown says it's natural to think about lifting the Stanley Cup at this stage.
"We’ve also had the experience of being through this same exact situation, being up 3-0, so we need to lean on each other and that experience and be focused and ready to go.”

No team has completed a Stanley Cup finals sweep since 1998.

“Everyone’s talking about a 3-0 lead, but you need four,” center Jarret Stoll told reporters Wednesday. "That’s what it’s all about and it’s always the hardest to get, so we gotta make sure we’re ready to go tonight.

“Guys are in a good place. Everybody’s confident. We just gotta make sure we’re playing our game, our style, our way. We gotta play a good game to beat these guys. They’re gonna have their best game tonight, and we have to have ours to be in it and go where we wanna go.”

The Kings, who became the fourth team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 deficit to win a playoff series in the first round against the San Jose Sharks, want to eliminate the Rangers on Wednesday night.

“You don’t want to give them any confidence whatsoever,” defenseman Willie Mitchell said.

The Kings have plenty of Conn Smythe candidates, including center Anze Kopitar (5 goals, 21 assists in the playoffs), center Jeff Carter (10-14), right winger Justin Williams (8-16), right winger Marian Gaborik (13-8) and defenseman Drew Doughty (5-12).

“That’s an award that a lot of NHLers obviously aspire to have,” Williams said Tuesday. “But at the same time, when you’re presented with it, I think a lot of guys just want to put it aside and look to the big jug. That’s pretty much how I can explain it.

“To be even mentioned with these big guys in that conversation is awesome. But, hey, the big one is what matters. God, I want to taste it again.”

NEW YORK -- Of the many memorable hours leading up to the epic gold-medal game at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 between Canada and the United States, this is one that has stayed with us.

It was a conversation with then-U.S. associate GM David Poile the day before that game.

He had spoken earlier in the process about the importance of the Olympics, specifically the impact a strong showing might have on future generations of U.S. players. About how the 1980 Miracle on Ice team became a beacon for a generation or more of American players as well as -- to a lesser degree -- the U.S. team that defeated Canada in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship.

As the gold-medal game approached, it was hard not to be swept up in the emotion of what lay ahead.

“I don't think anybody knew how good we'd be. We didn't know how good we'd be,” Poile said that Saturday. “Let's call it like it is.”

The Americans would be denied a shot at Olympic immortality by the slimmest of margins, a Sidney Crosby goal in overtime, from a bad angle at that.

We were reminded of the legacy -- or at least the potential legacy -- of that team Saturday, when we were swept up once again in the quest for Olympic glory as Poile was formally announced as GM of the U.S. team for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia.

Part of the charm of the Vancouver team was the fact it was the youngest team in the tournament. As GM, Brian Burke was fond of repeating that no one gave the Americans a spit of a chance to earn a medal, let alone battle for gold.

No question the dynamics will be dramatically different in Sochi on a host of fronts.

“In Vancouver, we were turning the page,” Poile told ESPN.com on Saturday.

That team was the first that didn’t hearken to the glory days of Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Keith Tkachuk et al. The idea was that if the team had any success at all, it would provide a good base on which to build for 2014.

The Americans’ run to the silver (going 5-1 in the tournament) means they will not sneak up on anyone in Sochi. Not with the past two Conn Smythe Trophy winners on the roster in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Quick. Throw in top-end talent like Ryan Suter, who in our book was the hands-down best defenseman in the NHL this season (finished second to P.K. Subban in Norris Trophy voting), Minnesota Wild teammate Zach Parise, David Backes, Joe Pavelski, Phil Kessel and Dustin Brown and there will be a strong core returning from the Vancouver squad.

Still, trying to handicap Olympic contenders based on results from a tournament four years in the past is a mug’s game. Yes, some continuity is important. Understanding the routines of an Olympic tournament, the media, the schedule and the ebbs and flows of a short, high-drama competition is critical to how a team comes together.

But each tournament represents a different world, and that is where the management structure and coaching staff are so critical to a team’s success.

USA Hockey neatly sidestepped a potential public relations problem early on by structuring its management team in the manner it did. Poile moved up the ladder and will be joined by Pittsburgh Penguins GM Ray Shero, who will act as associate. The two worked together for the Nashville Predators and were part of the U.S. management committee that helped put together the 2010 team.

But Burke, the architect of that team, has been kept in the fold as director of player personnel. He will accompany the team to Sochi.

It was Burke who came up with the idea of opening the process of selecting teams for international competition to American GMs. He invited colleagues like Paul Holmgren (Philadelphia Flyers), Dean Lombardi (Los Angeles Kings), Stan Bowman (Chicago Blackhawks), Dale Tallon (Florida Panthers) and former Atlanta Thrashers GM Don Waddell to join in the process.

The openness and inclusiveness established by Burke was universally praised by those involved, and as Poile pointed out Saturday, the validation of the process was in the result -- a silver medal.

That Burke, dismissed from his post as GM and president of the Toronto Maple Leafs on the eve of the lockout-shortened regular season in January, continues to have a strong voice in the building of the 2014 team is an important nod to what he’s accomplished. To have marginalized him would have sent a disappointing message.

“He will have a big part in the formation of this team in 2014,” Poile said.

But a nod to the past is also being balanced by a nod to the future, which is critical given that neither Canada nor the U.S. medaled in the two Olympics held away from North American soil since the NHL began participation in 1998 in Nagano. (2006 in Torino was the other.)

A bigger ice surface, time issues and different cultures will conspire to make life in Sochi exponentially more difficult than it was in Vancouver and, before that, Salt Lake City in 2002, when Canada defeated the U.S. for the gold medal.

The committee, which represents 150 years of NHL GM experience and six Stanley Cup championships, will have to keep all those things in mind, Poile said, when making selections, just as it did in choosing the Pens’ Dan Bylsma as head coach.

Burke built a team that could play an NHL-style game with a blend of hard-nosed forechecking, strong defense and goaltending mixed with opportunistic scoring, but the style of play in Sochi may make some of those qualities less important.

Clearly, skating and puck movement will be at a premium on the big ice surface, which suggests players like Keith Yandle, Kevin Shattenkirk and perhaps Matt Carle or John Carlson may be more attractive than other, more physical defensemen.

What about a speedy, skilled forward like Alex Galchenyuk, who had a strong rookie campaign for the Montreal Canadiens?

“Our philosophy is going to be a little bit different because this is in Europe,” Poile said. “We have to tune up our thinking a little bit.”

One thing Poile made clear is that, while a résumé of strong play has historically been a factor in inclusion on the final roster handed in late in December, getting off to a good start next fall will be key in the committee’s final decisions.

In introducing the management team Saturday in New York, president of USA Hockey Ron DeGregorio suggested that an American team is no longer the stuff of miracles but rather the stuff of expectations.

A fine sentiment, and after Vancouver, it would seem it is true. Now it’s up to Poile and the rest to meet those heady expectations.

“This is the ultimate honor and challenge,” Poile said.

LOS ANGELES -- Game 7.

It explains itself.

No matter how many you’ve played, it’s special unto itself.

“If you don’t get butterflies, there’s something wrong with you,” said Los Angeles Kings veteran Justin Williams, who is 3-0 in Game 7s in his career with seven points (3 goals, 4 assists).

“But at the same time, control the butterflies, be calm, be confident; that’s how we aim to approach it,” Williams added after the morning skate at Staples Center.

Williams remembers how he felt before Game 7 of the 2006 Stanley Cup finals; his Carolina Hurricanes had lost two straight to the Edmonton Oilers before finally finishing them off at home.

“We had lost Game 5 on a short-handed overtime goal, and then we got completely embarrassed in Game 6 [in Edmonton]. It wasn’t even close,” Williams said. “So, obviously, we had to regroup, refocus and maintain. Just like everyone says, ‘Hey, if you could play one game for the Stanley Cup, you guys would take it at the start of the year.’ That was the approach. I don’t think I slept that day, but I was ready to play.”

Loose Sharks


On Tuesday morning, the San Jose Sharks players were loose and relaxed again at the pregame skate.

It may mean nothing come game’s end Tuesday night, but it’s unmistakable that the Sharks are acting like they’re playing with house money.

“This team really does have a lot of fun with each other; we’ve really just enjoyed this run and we want to continue it after tonight,” Sharks captain Joe Thornton said after the morning skate.

Veteran defenseman Dan Boyle says it’s a different feeling this year for the Sharks, who didn’t enter the playoffs under the weight of expectations.

“For many years we’ve been picked [to go far] and people get disappointed year in and year out. This year it’s been the other way around, where we weren’t picked to win the first series [against the Vancouver Canucks] and we weren’t picked to win this one,” Boyle said. “It’s a different situation for us. Whether that’s good or bad, we’ll see. But not a lot of people thought we would be here at this point.”

Less than two months ago, the Sharks were in the process of trading away three veteran players: Ryane Clowe, Michal Handzus and Douglas Murray. And if the team had kept losing, who knows who else would have been gone.

“We were probably a couple of losses away from a big blowup; a couple of us were mentioned in trade rumors,” Boyle said. “We just stuck through it, came together as a team and have played very well since we made a couple of those deals.”

Ever since that day, the Sharks have played as if every day was a bonus for them. Which is why coach Todd McLellan said he’s not planning any big speech before Game 7.

“There are still things we need to address, but there isn’t a rah-rah speech that’s going to go on,” McLellan said. “They’re motivating themselves, they’re playing for each other. There’s nothing more powerful in sport than when a group of people come together and play for each other. If they have to play because the coach is motivating them, I don’t think we’ll be successful.”

Williams, though, downplayed San Jose’s underdog role. After all, he said, these teams were separated by only one point in the standings this season.

“You can say anything to make yourself think whatever you want,” Williams said. “In here, we don’t care. Underdog? They’re a successful hockey team, and so are we. You want to finish your season with a win. If you don’t, you get a sour taste for the summer, and we don’t want that tonight.”

Sutter demands more of LWs


Kings coach Darryl Sutter pointed to production -- or, rather, a lack thereof -- from the team’s left wingers as an issue heading into Game 7.

“We need more from our left side, period,” Sutter said Tuesday morning. “We’ve got two even-strength goals in the whole playoffs from our left side. When you’re talking about lines, that’s one of our three that aren’t pulling their weight.”

Captain Dustin Brown played left wing on the top line with Anze Kopitar until two games ago, when he was shifted to right wing on the third line and scored his team’s lone goal from that spot Sunday. He has three goals in 12 playoff games.

Sutter’s message was probably directed more toward left wingers Dustin Penner (two goals in 12 games) and Dwight King (no goals in 12 games).

First goal means something


The team scoring first in this series is 6-0. Scoring first seems to calm that team down and allow it to set the tone. It looms large heading into Game 7.

“Both teams rely heavily on their goaltenders, so I think getting that first goal kind of calms both benches down,” Thornton said. “I think it’s 70 percent in these playoffs -- if you score the first goal, that team wins. So it’s going to be huge for us tonight.”

Jumbo huge


Asked what the Sharks were doing well against them in this series, Brown pointed to one specific player: Thornton.

“He's been a pretty dominant force throughout the series,” Brown said. “He is really good on the offensive side of the puck. I think that's probably been the biggest part of the series for them is No. 19. From our blue line in, he's been really big and really hard. He's so big and strong, and then you add his skill level into it, it's a tough combo to defend. I think guys have battled hard against him, but he's been effective.”

Western parity


Both second-round series in the Western Conference need seventh games to decide them, a fact Sutter felt was reflective of the competition in the West.

“Look at it, our conference has four teams going to Game 7,” Sutter said. “It tells you how good the conference is and how close the teams are. That’s clear. There’s not a top to bottom, and it’s probably the way it should be.

“The teams are really, really close.”

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- Game 7 has a lore not contained by borders.

Slovenia’s Anze Kopitar made that clear on the eve of his first career NHL seventh game when asked whether he ever pretended to play in one as a kid just as Canadian kids do.

"I got blood under my skin just like a Canadian kid," said the Kings' star center. "I don’t think it’s any different over in Europe. Everybody wants to be in these types of games. You want to raise the level of play, and eventually you want to be the hero in these types of games."

Game 7.

It just sounds different. It feels different. It plays different.

It’s what every kid dreams of.

"It’s seems like everything you did sportswise is always a Game 7 when you’re in the neighborhood and stuff," Sharks center and Anchorage native Scott Gomez told reporters in San Jose on Monday before hopping a plane bound for L.A. "So it’s a special time, and as you get older, you realize that you have to take advantage of these, but it’s great for hockey, great for the fans, great for this area. The goal was to get back to L.A., and we’re excited that we’re in a position where we can move on."

Game 7. Just mention those two words and let your imagination do the rest.

"I don't think it's a hard thing to get up for a Game 7," said Kings captain Dustin Brown, a native of Ithaca, N.Y. "Whenever you're playing road hockey, you're always playing in a Game 7, right? I'm looking forward to the opportunity. I know a lot of other guys are looking forward to the opportunity to be in a game like [Tuesday] night. It's about getting yourself in the right mental mind frame."

California’s 2013 NHL title game is an intriguing juxtaposition of experience and variables.

On the one hand, the Sharks’ roster has more than twice the amount of Game 7 experience under its belt than the Kings'; heck, Gomez alone, with nine career Game 7s played, accounts for more than half of the 16 total Game 7s in the Kings' dressing room.

On the flip side, the Kings were crowned last spring as Stanley Cup champions, perhaps more relevant a recent history when it comes to pressure hockey.

"This is one opportunity for the guys in here who haven't been a part of Game 7," said Brown. "I know I haven't. But I think we have enough playoff experience in big games. It's one game, and we're at home, where we play well. That's why we fought and battled for home ice in the regular season."

It was exactly a month ago Monday, on April 27, that the Kings edged the Sharks 3-2 in their regular-season finale, a contest that seemed largely irrelevant at the time because the Blues had sewn up the No. 4 seed before both California clubs had hit the ice that night.

Ah, had they only known then that the one-goal victory would mean home ice for the Kings in a seventh game in the second round.

L.A. has won 13 straight at Staples Center, and there’s no question the Kings are thrilled the big one is at home Tuesday night, especially given the team’s 1-5 road record this spring.

Still, the Kings have made things interesting for themselves by not closing it out Sunday in San Jose. This is a beat-up team that will play its 13th game in two rounds Tuesday night. The Kings could have used those extra days off.

Now they have a one-game showdown with the season on the line. It’s a position the Kings were never in last spring, the team amazingly going up 3-0 in each round and going past five games only once, at the end, when Game 6 was needed to finish off the Devils in the Stanley Cup finals.

It’s been a different script this spring.

"The mood’s good," Kopitar said Monday. "We certainly realize that we let one get away from us last night. That’s why we won the last game of the season, to come back here. The way this series has been going, I guess the odds are on our side, but we realize it’s going to be a hard game. And anything can happen in Game 7."

Frankly, anything can happen in this Game 7 because there’s just so little to choose from between these two teams. I can’t remember the last time I covered a series where I felt both teams were so, so close in performance. There’s nary a hair separating these two clubs, which is why neither outcome Tuesday night would surprise anyone.

"There’s not much difference in the teams," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said Monday. "We finished one point apart, our goals against is similar, our goals for is similar, our power-play goals for the year is similar, our penalty kill is similar, so there’s a lot of similarities."

Meaning all you can control on Tuesday night if you’re the Kings or Sharks is your own individual performance.

Gomez remembers what veteran Devils GM Lou Lamoriello once said about Game 7s when the center played in New Jersey.

"If you can look at yourself in the mirror after and know that you gave it your all, that’s what it’s about," Gomez said. "Sports are crazy. The outcome’s not always going to be what you want. I always remember him saying that. But being on both sides and everyone has a different memory of Game 7. But like I said, these are the fun ones. We’re all excited. There’s nothing better in sports than a Game 7."

And let’s not kid ourselves here: The pressure’s on the home team Tuesday night. It's the Cup champ, after all.

The Sharks are playing with house money, or at least they give you that impression. Nobody’s going to say they had a disappointing season if they lose Tuesday night. After they dealt away three potential unrestricted free agents before the trade deadline, I don’t think many people would have figured the Sharks for being one win from the Western Conference finals in late May.

After years of feeling the burden of expectations, the Sharks didn’t have any this spring.

And the players are feeding off that.

"The unique thing and the great thing about our team right now is they’re playing for each other," Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said Monday. "They’re motivated by each other, they’re having fun together, they’re seizing the moment. We don’t have to come in as coaches and motivate, and give them the 'One for the Gipper' thing. It’s not that way. It’s a good thing for our team. Maybe in the past we’ve had that, but not now."

When pushed into a corner over the past two months, the Kings have delivered. When the Blues went up 2-0 in the opening round, the Kings found another level. When the Sharks won two games to tie this series, the Kings dug deep and found another level.

No question you expect the defending champs to find yet another level Tuesday night.

What’s nagging at them, though, is why they haven’t been able to do it consistently from game to game like they did so impressively a year ago.

"We’re a confident group, we know we can get it done; we’ve done it a bunch of times already," Kopitar said. "Now it’s just a matter of going out and really performing to our standards. Because let’s be honest, we haven’t done that nearly consistently enough. No better time to do it than [Tuesday]."

LOS ANGELES -- The Kings’ new forward lines were still a go at the pregame skate Thursday morning, meaning captain Dustin Brown and star center Anze Kopitar were on different units.

If the morning lines stand for Game 5 Thursday night, Kopitar will start with Kyle Clifford and Justin Williams, and Brown will be on the third line with Trevor Lewis and Dwight King.

“When you score two goals in 120 minutes, you got to mix it around,” Brown said after the morning skate. “With Kinger and Lewis, they’re both really hard-working guys with pretty good skill low. They have that two-man cycle game down pat. For us, it should be about simplifying our game, getting it into their zone and cycling. The important thing, and I mentioned this to Lewy and Kinger: it’s one thing to cycle; we have to bring pucks to the net when we have the opportunity. Sometimes that’s just bearing down, dropping your shoulder and going. With the size and skill we have on this line, that should be our goal.”

For Clifford, it’s a big promotion from the fourth line to Kopitar’s line.

“It’s definitely a big role, I just have to play my game, keep it simple and not change anything,” Clifford said.

Dustin Penner remained with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, Penner having joined that duo midway through Game 4 in San Jose -- although Penner’s promotion to that line doesn’t mean Kings coach Darryl Sutter is completely satisfied with his play in this series.

“We need a bigger, heavier game from Dustin Penner. Very simple,” Sutter said.

Stoll update

Jarret Stoll is still not close to playing -- he hasn’t even resumed skating -- but there was some news reported by Sutter on Thursday morning.

“He rode the bike yesterday for a few minutes,” Sutter said. “He’ll do that again today. It is protocol. Is it progress? It is if it’s good today [how he feels on the bike ride].”

Sharks at Staples


The Kings have won 12 straight at home, where they’re a comfortable bunch. What do the Sharks have to do to get traction here?

“I think we can build off of Game 2; we played a good enough game to win here,” center Logan Couture said. “Obviously we took a couple of penalties at the end of that game that cost us. I think we played a really good road game that night. Hopefully we can build off that.”

Veteran defenseman Dan Boyle agreed.

“It’s important for us not to be complacent, not to be satisfied with what we’ve done so far,” he said. “I’ve seen it in the past, I’ve been on teams where you come back a little bit in the series and then there’s a letdown, you almost exhale for a second. I just think this team needs to keep going on what we’ve done over the past four games. We just need to keep going.”

Better starts


The Sharks have had better starts three games in a row, and that’s something the Kings were keying on heading into Game 5.

“I think it’s based on your top guys,” Sutter said. “I know we keep coming back to that, but if you look at how especially their top two lines early have been really good, we’ve had to sort of weed into that. That’s the challenge for those groups.”

The Sharks know the Kings were preparing for a big start and have also talked about that heading into Game 5.

“The first 5-7 minutes are going to be important for our team,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said. “We’re going to have to get on our toes and make sure that we’re aggressive and try to play those minutes in their end. I think they’ll try to make the start a focal point on their behalf. We have to be prepared for it.”

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- There's a reason no team has won back-to-back Stanley Cup titles since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and '98:

It's damn tough.

Reproducing the hunger and drive to go all-out over two months is mighty difficult. Once a player has done it, he realizes how much sacrifice it takes. He remembers what his body feels like at the end of it.

Two-time Stanley Cup champion Justin Williams knows that all too well.

"The parity of the league makes it a lot tougher. It’s hard [to repeat]," Williams said Wednesday after he and the Los Angeles Kings practiced. "It is a hard grind getting 16 wins throughout a postseason. But the trick is to make sure you have the same hunger that drove you last year, because you have won.

"That next Stanley Cup should be your favorite one. That’s what we're finding here, that's what we’re looking for. And there are teams in our way. We're still in a good spot."

The reigning Cup champion Kings do indeed control their fate despite having lost two straight to the San Jose Sharks and sitting in a 2-2 tie in the Western Conference semifinals. It's now a best-of-three series with two of those three games at home, where the Kings have dominated of late, winning 12 straight.

"We won the last game of the regular season for a reason," star center Anze Kopitar said. "We got to make it count."

It certainly isn't coming easily this spring for the Kings, who steamrolled through the playoffs last spring like the 1987 Edmonton Oilers.

Los Angeles was healthy and dominant a year ago, barely facing any adversity in going up 3-0 in all four series. It was silly, really.

Now the Kings get to experience the playoffs like normal contenders. You know, where you lose a game here and there. And lose a player here and there.

They're finding out that repeating is awfully tough.

"The physical part is obviously huge, but just the highs and lows that you go through, you got to be ready for that in your head," Kopitar said. "Last year we had a lot more highs than we had lows. This time it's a little bit different. Mentally, it's challenging. You have to take it as a new day and prepare that way."

This a good test for the Kings, who have character and guts. It would be a shock if they didn't raise their game to another level in Game 5 on Thursday at Staples Center.

This team still has the hunger.

"Absolutely, absolutely," said Williams, who appears to be playing banged up in this series. "We're professionals, we're here for a reason. That Stanley Cup, the big, silver jug, is the pinnacle of success in our professional life. Regardless of whether you've won it once, twice, five times, come playoff time that's all you want."

It won't all be solved between the ears, though.

There are X's-and-O's issues, too.

"We've just got to get more O-zone time and less D-zone. It's simple," said veteran defenseman Matt Greene, who got his first good look at the issues Tuesday night in his first game of this postseason.

"They’re a cycle team just like us, and the more they're in our zone, the less we're establishing our game plan and doing what we want behind their defensemen. That's it. It's pretty simple," Greene said. "There's no magic here. We just need more offensive-zone time."

The Kings haven't generated enough offensive pressure in this series. At least not the kind we’re accustomed to seeing from them.

To that end, head coach Darryl Sutter took his blender out Wednesday, shuffling the deck on his lines, at least for practice.

Captain Dustin Brown was off Kopitar's line and found himself on the third line with Trevor Lewis and Dwight King. Replacing Brown on Kopitar's line with Williams was Kyle Clifford. Dustin Penner skated with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, after Penner replaced King on that unit midway through Game 4.

"Quite honestly last night as the night went on we used a lot of different guys," Sutter said Wednesday when asked about the line changes. "Trying to get something going and generate a little bit more with some of our top guys."

The Brown-Kopitar-Williams unit just hasn't delivered enough. That's a big part of the issues, especially when you think back to both Brown and Kopitar generating playoff MVP votes last season.

"Quite honestly as a line, they've been struggling for two series, if you look at it," Sutter said.

It's clear that the coach isn't satisfied with too many of his forwards' production, other than Richards and Carter.

"I think we need four lines with some balance because really other than Richie and Jeff, we really haven't been able to play anybody to give us a little bit of energy and continuity," Sutter said.

The veteran Kings coach leaned back on the bench he was sitting on at this team's practice facility Wednesday and pointed out to the assembled reporters where this deadlocked series basically stands.

"The score is now 8-7 four games in, and we're winning 8-7," Sutter said.

In other words: They knew they were in for a fight with the Sharks, they're not surprised, they're not panicking, and they've got home-ice advantage.

The road to glory isn't so smoothly paved this year. A win Thursday night, however, would get the Kings back on track.

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- To a man, players on the San Jose Sharks heading into Game 4 felt they had outplayed the Los Angeles Kings despite being down in the series.

That’s fine and dandy, Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle said the other day, but unless it shows up on the scoreboard, it means nothing.

Now it has. Now it does.

Brent Burns and Logan Couture scored the goals, Joe Thornton was a one-man wrecking crew, and the Sharks served notice Tuesday night with a second straight win in a 2-1 decision: If the defending Stanley Cup champions are going to have a shot at repeating, they’re going to have to raise their game to another level.

Because, right now, the Kings are fortunate it’s only a 2-2 series and not worse.

They were outshot 15-3 in the opening period Tuesday night, thanks to Jonathan Quick only being outscored 1-0, but the reigning Cup champions looked completely overmatched early on in what helped set the tempo for a Sharks win.

“That first period was as good as we’ve played possibly all year,” Boyle said.

On the flip side, the Kings have rarely looked so disorganized.

“You've got [to] prepare, get ready for the drop of the puck,” Kings center Mike Richards said. “It was 1-0 before we even knew what was going on out there.”

Burns opened the scoring 6:09 into the game, taking a beautiful feed from Thornton as their line, with T.J. Galiardi, skated circles around the Kings' zone.

“I thought they were very good early, established a relentless forecheck and used their size to their advantage,” Sharks head coach Todd McLellan said of the Thornton line. “Obviously, they got us the first goal. And the momentum they created ran throughout the rest of the lines, and everyone jumped on board.”

Wave after wave of Sharks pinned the Kings into their zone before an energized and raucous sellout crowd of 17,562 at HP Pavilion.

Thornton was an absolute beast, flicking off Kings defenders like they were flies.

“It’s the best I’ve seen him play,” his linemate, Galiardi, said. “I don’t know what he had for pregame meal today, but I hope he has it again in a couple of days. He was flying. And it’s so contagious; when Jumbo’s going, everybody is going. It’s pretty to watch.”

The Sharks kept the Kings hemmed into their zone nearly the entire first period.

“The Kings are spending way more time defending in their own zone than they were a year ago,” a veteran NHL scout said between periods.

Some of that is because the Kings’ back end hasn’t been set the entire season -- with no Willie Mitchell available, Alec Martinez (scratched on this night) struggling to find the form he had last season and Matt Greene having been out most of the season until finally being re-inserted into the lineup Tuesday night.

Whatever the case, the Kings’ blue line, especially the third pairing, just hasn’t had the symmetry and balance it had a season ago.

The Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesThe Kings have found this playoff run a little trickier than last season's.
But credit the Sharks here, as well. They are right on top of the Kings with a speedy forecheck that has bottled up Los Angeles.

It’s incredible how much faster this Sharks team plays compared to a season ago when it went out meekly to the St. Louis Blues in the first round.

“We were more passive last year,” Thornton said. “This year, we’re aggressive. We just play well when we’re aggressive, and that’s probably been the key.”

While the Kings took a while to find their game on this night, it doesn’t help when you’re not getting the calls, either. A quick whistle in the second period robbed the Kings of a goal when it was obvious Antti Niemi did not have it. That should have been a goal for Los Angeles, and it would have cut the lead to 2-1. That would have been a big moment for the Kings.

“It was a quick whistle,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said. “That stuff tends to even itself out over the course of a year. Sometimes, you get a quick whistle your way. Sometimes, you don't.”

It was a tough call, and these are the type of things that didn’t seem to happen to this Kings team last season. Whether they’re calls from refs or plain breaks, everything seemed to go their way, in large part because they manufactured a lot of that good fortune with their play.

They rolled out to four consecutive 3-0 leads and barely faced any adversity en route to a well-deserved championship.

If they win the Cup again this season, it will be with a much different script.

The Kings head home now, where they’ve won 12 straight and are a perfect 5-0 in these playoffs. That’s a good place to turn this around.

“We're comfortable at home, so I think that's going to be a good thing, and we obviously have confidence there, too,” Richards said. “It's just a matter of playing our game. When we do that, we have success.”

The Kings began to recapture their game in the third period Tuesday night, finding the back of the net on Richards’ power-play goal at 9:46 and outshooting the Sharks 14-2.

“They’re the Stanley Cup champions for a reason,” Thornton said. “They’re going to hang around. In the third period, they played really, really well.”

But in the same fashion, the Kings chalked up being outshot 16-4 in the third period in Game 1 to the Sharks desperately trying to get back in the game, there was a similar feeling Tuesday night to the Kings’ third-period dominance.

“We have to [do] that from the start,” Brown said. “That's the difference in the game. They dominated the play, especially in the first 30 minutes.”

A dandy of a series is now a best of three, with the underdogs believing more than ever they have a chance at dethroning the champs.

“We’re in a good place right now, and it’s only going to get harder,” Boyle said.

A few nights ago in L.A., after the Sharks suffered what seemed like a crushing, Game 2 loss, McLellan confidently told reporters that his team would bounce back. He felt these Sharks were different than in seasons past.

He was right.

“The character in our locker room … you could feel it when we left L.A. on the plane after Game 2,” the Sharks coach said. “We were ready to get back to work.

“We’re going to swing the bat when we’re up there.”
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SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Both the Kings and Sharks were mulling lineup decisions Tuesday morning after the pregame skates.

For Los Angeles, coach Darryl Sutter would not confirm whether winger Kyle Clifford would return for Game 4 on Tuesday night.

“There hasn’t been any announcement that I’m aware of that he’s coming back,” Sutter said when asked about Clifford.

Clifford, who has been out since May 8 with an undisclosed injury, skated on a line with Colin Fraser and Brad Richardson in practice Monday and sounded afterward like he thought he was playing.

But this is the playoffs, and gamesmanship with lineups is a daily activity.

On defense, veteran Matt Greene -- who played in only five games in the regular season after missing two months recovering from back surgery -- hasn’t played in the postseason, although he did take warm-ups before Game 3.

Sutter was asked Tuesday morning what it would take for him to feel comfortable playing Greene, who was a key last spring in the Kings’ Cup run.

“We had him in warm-up the other night, and that’s the direction you go,” Sutter said. “Practice, contact, game-day skates, warm-up, that’s always what you try and do. You’re more inclined with veteran guys ... there’s young guys that you have to push; the difference between injured and hurt, that’s something you have to explain sometimes. But with the older guys, the veterans, guys that you trust, there’s a point where they make that decision because they know what it takes.”

For San Jose, the re-injured Martin Havlat and the suspended Raffi Torres leave the Sharks with few options for their lineup ahead of Game 4.

Expect Tim Kennedy as a fourth-line center or Jason Demers as a seventh defenseman/fourth-line winger. The latter seems more likely.

“Still an option for us,” Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. “We can put Demers in and play him both at forward and the back end, and rotate him around. That would allow us to maybe overplay or use someone else on the fourth line a little bit more, whether it’s Jumbo or Patty or whoever it might be. So it’s certainly an option.”

Demers said Tuesday morning that he was told by the coaching staff simply to be “ready” in case he gets the call. Demers did play some forward three years ago in the conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, so it’s not foreign to him.

But McLellan dismissed the notion that because the Sharks have had success with Brent Burns moving from defense to forward, perhaps they can get lucky with Demers as well.

“No, it’s two completely different cases,” McLellan said. “We can’t get into making this a habit. Burnsy has played there before, he’s played well there before. Jason has played up in some games when we’ve needed forwards, but Burnsy is a separate case, a special case.”

Quick contact


Sutter on Monday said he had some concern that his goaltender came into more contact with opposing players in Game 3 than did San Jose’s goalie.

That’s a veteran coach’s way of getting the attention of referees before Game 4, hoping officials will call goalie interference when applicable.

“He plays on top of the crease,” Sutter said Tuesday of Quick when asked about his concerns. “I’m not whining or bitching or anything, but it’s just that he plays on the top of the crease, and the last two series we play against goalies who play more in the blue paint. So, what is the rule?”

The Sharks absolutely want to continue to get into Jonathan Quick’s face as much as possible.

“Within the rules, you want to get into his way,” Sharks winger T.J. Galiardi said. “I think with him, he wants to come out to the ringette line. If he comes out that far, I wish he was fair game. That would be great if that’s how it worked because he’s out all the time. He’s doing just as much as we are, little jabs here and there. He gave his blocker to the face of Burnsy. ... But we’re going to get in there. You can’t let him be comfortable."

Kopitar line


Sutter on Sunday essentially called out his top line, saying the Kings needed more production from Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Justin Williams.

“We know that,” Kopitar said Tuesday morning. “We take pride in our production and our game and it’s not to a level where we need to be. We’re going to have to crank it up.”
From the official NHL release:

ALFREDSSON, BROWN AND TOEWS NAMED FINALISTS
FOR MARK MESSIER NHL LEADERSHIP AWARD PRESENTED BY BRIDGESTONE

NEW YORK (May 20, 2013) – Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators, Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings and Jonathan Toews of the Chicago Blackhawks are the three finalists for the 2012-13 Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award presented by Bridgestone, which is presented to “the player who exemplifies great leadership qualities to his team, on and off the ice during the regular season,” the National Hockey League announced today.

Mark Messier solicits suggestions from club and League personnel and NHL fans to compile a list of potential candidates. However, the selection of the three finalists and ultimate winner is Messier’s alone.

Following are the finalists for the 2012-13 Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award presented by Bridgestone, in alphabetical order:

Daniel Alfredsson, Ottawa Senators

Alfredsson, the NHL’s longest-serving active captain, leads the Senators in numerous categories, including games played, goals, assists and points. He has taken a leadership role off of the ice as well, working with the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa, the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health and the Sens Foundation. Alfredsson has supported the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa for the past 10 seasons, purchasing tickets and suites for club members to attend Senators games and serving as title sponsor of Ringside for Youth, the club’s primary fundraising event during the season.
Since 2008, he also has been the spokesperson and champion for the Royal’s “You Know Who I Am” campaign, leading the way to help reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues. In addition, Alfredsson has supported the Royal’s “Do It for Daron” campaign to assist in raising the profile of youth mental health issues.

Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings

Brown has spent his entire nine-year NHL career with the Kings, serving as their captain for the past five seasons. He was selected as the Kings’ Most Popular Player this season and is known for his physical playing style, which consistently places him among the League leaders in hits. Capitalizing on his aggressive style of play to help others, Brown makes a $50 donation for each hit he delivers to his opponents – a contribution he has made since the 2008-09 season. Those benefiting from this charitable initiative include the Newborn and Infant Critical Care Unit at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles and KABOOM!, a relationship that has raised $60,000 and culminated with a special playground built in Carson, Calif., in September 2010.

Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks

Toews was named captain of the Blackhawks in 2008 when he was just 20-years-old, making him the third-youngest captain in NHL history at the time. While his leadership on the ice is undisputed, his role off the ice with various children’s charitable causes makes him an undeniable role model to fans. In his spare time, Toews volunteers to grant wishes through the Make-A-Wish Foundation and visits with patients at the local children’s hospital and Chicago’s Misericordia. Last fall, he returned home to join the Winnipeg Patrolmen Hockey Club and other NHL players for the “Goals for Dreams Hockey Challenge,” which helped raise $80,000 for the Children’s Hospital Foundation and the Dream Factory, a charity that grants dreams for critically and chronically ill children.

LOS ANGELES -- It’s not just one hit. It's a Raffi Torres hit.

And that’s why it takes on a whole different meaning, for better or for worse.

Torres faces a disciplinary hearing in New York on Thursday after knocking Los Angeles Kings center Jarret Stoll out of Game 1 of the Western Conference semifinals with a hard hit, and is suspended pending the outcome.

If this had been Joe Pavelski leveling Stoll with the same hit, you wonder if there would even be a hearing.

But it wasn't Pavelski. It was Torres, a repeat offender with a reputation cemented once and for all last spring when he crushed Chicago Blackhawks star Marian Hossa in the first round of the playoffs.

"Questionable," Kings forward Dustin Penner said Wednesday when asked about the Torres hit on Stoll. "Tough position, I think everybody knows the player [Torres], when the player's not suspecting you to hit him. It's not the first time a hit like that's happened."

Kings head coach Darryl Sutter called the hit "careless."

"It's just frustrating to see that, that's all," he later added.

Predictably, both teams have vastly different views on the hit. The Sharks don’t even think it merited the penalty Torres was assessed Tuesday night.

"We kind of questioned the call of a charging penalty, to be honest with you, so we were kind of shocked today to hear he has to fly to New York for the hearing, because we didn't see anything wrong on the play," Sharks captain Joe Thornton said Wednesday.

"It's unfortunate Jarret was hurt, but we just thought it was a clean hit," added Thornton. "We even saw it again today and we thought it was a clean hit."

The NHL obviously disagrees. For one, I think the league believes the head was the principal point of contact, and surely it also doesn't like the path Torres took to the hit.

More than anything though, this is about a player with a reputation.

Otherwise, I’m not sure this is even something the league looks at.

"I was on the ice, basically right beside it, and thought it was shoulder to shoulder, clean hit," said Sharks center Logan Couture. "Obviously, he was injured on the play so you hope the other guy is OK, but from what I saw, it was a clean hit.

"Right after the play happened, I was surprised there was even a penalty on the play because he didn't charge him. He was two feet away when he hit him. I think I looked back at the ref and was just shocked that there was a penalty."

Stoll was reaching for the puck and had his head down on the play, no question. But Rule 48 (illegal check to the head) protects a player whether he has his head up or not.

And that continues to be a debate in hockey circles.

"It almost seems like the player getting hit has no responsibility at all right now," said Thornton. "I think Jarret probably wasn't expecting to get hit, and it just looked like a clean hit. But it just seems the responsibility is on the hitter right now, not the receiver.

"The way I was brought up is to keep your head up," added Thornton. "When I was 6 years old, I was taught that."

Sound familiar? This was the same back-and-forth the Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators had after Ottawa's Eric Gryba was suspended for leveling Montreal's Lars Eller, who had his head down on the play.

But Penner says that's not a fair comparison.

"I think that hit was fine," he said of the Gryba hit. "It’s a split-second decision. You guys can slow it down to .001 milliseconds, but you gotta make that hit. And this one, you don't have to make that hit, that's probably the difference."

And whereas the Gryba hit was the catalyst for an emotion-filled series, culminating in a line brawl in Ottawa in Game 3, the Kings insist they're not going to get drawn into that.

"I think we're clearly a team that's not going to lower ourselves to retribution," said Sutter. "That’s not going to come into play, that's zero. We talked about not taking retaliation or dumb penalties, that's not going to change."

"It's the playoffs, the best retribution is winning games right now," added Kings captain Dustin Brown.

These guys are the defending Stanley Cup champions for a reason.

"We're emotionally invested enough," said Penner. "We have a lot on the line. We want to defend our Stanley Cup, we're not going to go looking for bulletin-board material, we don't need that type of motivation."

Adding to the intrigue is that Torres and Stoll were good buddies during their time in Edmonton. Penner, who also played with Torres in Edmonton, wasn’t 100 percent sure, but he thought Stoll might have been in Torres' wedding party.

It just goes to show there are no friends on the ice during the playoffs.

In the meantime, the Kings will miss Stoll. The dependable No. 3 center is a clutch veteran.

"He's a really good player for us, he was a big part of winning the Stanley Cup, really good center man, guy who plays minutes, plays special teams, so obviously our player is a little more important than theirs," Sutter said in a subtle jab at Torres.

Asked how long Stoll might be out, Sutter responded:

"How long’s the series? He's day-to-day, but the series is seven games in 12 days. It's tough."

Center Brad Richardson figures to draw back into the lineup for the Kings.

"We have good options," said Sutter. "Brad's used to playing in our top nine, we'll figure that out."

The Stoll injury, however, further brings into focus how this season is different from last for the reigning Cup champions.

They were relatively injury-free last spring en route to the Cup, amazingly using the same six defensemen for every playoff game, and keeping their key forwards intact as well.

Already this year they lost blueliner Willie Mitchell for the season, Matt Greene hasn't come back after missing a couple of months recovering from back surgery, and now Stoll is gone.

"I've said a lot of times, that will never happen again to use the same six defensemen basically from trade deadline through the middle of June," said Sutter. "That'll never happen, it's impossible.

“But looking back on last year, we used different forwards, but we just mixed our top nine around -- they all played every game."
The road to Brendan Shanahan's door should be renamed The Path of Least Resistance.

Whatever is guaranteed to create the least amount of fuss, whatever allows the latest ugly on-ice mess to dissipate into the ether as quickly as possible, that's what will be brought forth by the office the league's Lord of Discipline.

As was the case a year ago when the first round of the playoffs erupted in a frenzy of cheap shots and dangerous hits, the NHL's opening round this spring has seen bloodshed and suspensions.

Looks like the message is really getting through.

But it's not really about the message, is it?

It's about smoothing things over.

[+] EnlargeColin Campbell and Brendan Shanahan
Dave Sandford/Getty ImagesBrendan Shanahan, right, and his predecessor, Colin Campbell, have created more confusion than clarity when it comes to NHL discipline.
That's why Shanahan suspended Eric Gryba for what most hockey observers, including coaches, players and general managers we've spoken to in recent days, believe was a perfectly legal hockey hit on Montreal's Lars Eller.

Listen to Shanahan's video announcing the two-game ban, and he might as well have been explaining cold fusion. So much gobbledygook and double-speak to mask what was in the end another missed mark.

Had Shanahan simply come out and said "this is a hit we don't want in our game, and we are going to take it out, and it's going to start now with a 10-game ban," then we could have lived with that. In fact, a number of executives we spoke to in the wake of Gryba's devastating hit on Eller believe the hit needs to be taken out of the game.

That doesn't change the fact that the suspension wasn't framed that way, and that by the letter of the law, that's how defenders are taught to play.

If you want to call something an apple, then call it an apple. But don't say apple and then explain oranges, which is what the Gryba suspension became.

What confuses the issue even further -- and if there is a word to describe the NHL's attempt to modify on-ice mayhem in recent years, both under Shanahan and his predecessor Colin Campbell, it's confusion –- is the subsequent suspension of Detroit's Justin Abdelkader for two games for launching himself at a vulnerable Toni Lydman of the Anaheim Ducks.

Same suspension, so it must be the same play, right?

Ha-ha. Just kidding. They're two completely different scenarios.

Abdelkader launched himself at Lydman, targeting the head with the shoulder, exploding up and into the unsuspecting player.

The Ducks revealed that Lydman has severe headaches and a sore neck, and he is bothered by bright lights, all of which points to Lydman having suffered a concussion. That's no shock given the dangerous nature of the hit. He also isn't expected to play in Game 4 of the Wings/Ducks series. Again, no surprise.

This is the kind of activity the NHL has been trying for a number of years to eradicate, but we continue to see those kinds of hits on a regular basis.

Whatever the league thinks it's doing in terms of education and/or supplemental discipline, it's not working. The Minnesota Wild are without top forward Jason Pominville as they try to keep pace with the Chicago Blackhawks after a sneaky dirty elbow to the head from Dustin Brown late in the regular season.

The Kings' captain received a nice two-game break at the end of the regular season, which allowed him to rest up for the playoffs while Pominville’s absence could cost the Wild millions of dollars in playoff revenues.

The tendency in the playoffs has been to modify down the number of games a player is suspended for because the value of each game is greater, and so a five-game suspension in the regular season might be rationalized into a one-game ban in the postseason. Where's the logic in that?

What if Lydman cannot return to the series against Detroit? Yet Abdelkader, who has been playing on the Wings' top line with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, will be back for what could be deciding games?

How does that make sense? How is that justice?

Truth is, it has always been less about justice and making sense than simply making things go away when it comes to the NHL's peculiar efforts at controlling its on-ice mayhem.

The Minnesota Wild didn't get any help on the scoreboard Thursday night with both the Detroit Red Wings and Columbus Blue Jackets winning.

So Friday night's game with the Edmonton Oilers does indeed matter, the Wild needing a victory to clinch their first postseason berth since the 2007-08 season.

After lackluster losses to the San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames threatened Minnesota's playoff standing, the Wild faced basically a must-win game Tuesday night at home against the reigning Cup champs and responded with a huge 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings.

"I think that was the best game, if not all year, it was the best game we played in a long time," Wild star winger Zach Parise told ESPN.com Thursday. "So that was kind of refreshing because we've had some tough games. We had a pretty bad game out in San Jose [6-1 loss last Thursday]. And we couldn't win at home for a while. So it was real good to have one that we felt good about."

The never-say-die Blue Jackets beat the Dallas Stars 3-1 on the road Thursday to tie the eighth-place Wild at 53 points, but Minnesota has a game in hand plus the regulation and overtime wins tiebreaker. So, beat the visiting Oilers and the Wild -- a team with so much offseason hype -- will achieve their goal of reaching the postseason.

"Just around town, you can really tell how bad people want us to get into the playoffs and how long they've been waiting for it," Parise said. "Hopefully, we can get ourselves in there and see what happens after that."

Just get in and see what happens. You hear lots of players saying that this time of year, and why not?

Parise saw it first-hand a season ago when the unheralded, sixth-seeded New Jersey Devils got all the way to the Cup finals, only to lose to the eighth-seeded Kings.

Just get in.

"We got a matchup that I thought was favorable for us in the first round [Florida Panthers], and we got better as the playoffs went along," Parise said. "We beat two really good teams after that in Philadelphia and New York.

"And you know, everyone is so obsessed with the home-ice thing," he added. "Last year proves it right. L.A., last year as an eighth seed, started each series on the road and went up 2-0 every time. We also started on the road the first three series, and we did fine, too. So I think more than ever now that home ice isn't as much of an advantage as it used to be."

First, the Wild have to get there. And they might have to do so without trade deadline acquisition Jason Pominville, who took a hit to the head from Kings captain Dustin Brown (which cost the latter a two-game suspension) Tuesday and missed practice Thursday.

Wild GM Chuck Fletcher told ESPN.com via email Thursday that Pominville remained "day to day at this point, upper body."

It's a sizable loss, but if the Wild are fortunate, it won't be prolonged.

"He's played very well for us," Parise said of the former Buffalo Sabres captain. "That line, with [Pierre-Marc] Bouchard and [Kyle] Brodziak, was great for us the last little stretch.

"I don't know Jason's status. I saw him in the locker room [Thursday], and he looked good, but I don't know. Hopefully, he's good to go, because he's a big part of our lineup."

Few players have been a bigger part of Minnesota's lineup than Ryan Suter, who, like Parise, signed a 13-year, $98 million deal last summer to join the Wild as a prized free agent. The star defenseman is a strong Norris Trophy contender, leading the NHL in minutes played while doing it all at both ends of the ice.

"He's been what people expected of him and more," Parise said. "He's played a ton of minutes and plays them well. I feel like the more he plays, the better he plays. And you look at how tough it is for a young defenseman to come into the NHL, just the way Ryan has helped [Jonas] Brodin out this year. To me, Brodin is one of the very best rookies in the NHL. You look at how Ryan has helped out his game; I think he's been unbelievable."

Parise and Suter were brought in for all kinds of reasons, but certainly their experience at crunch time is also valuable for a young team.

"That's a big part of why they wanted to bring Ryan and I in: to share some of that experience that we've had," Parise, who took home Olympic silver with Suter in February 2010 for Team USA, said. "It's hard as a player the first time you play in the playoffs. I know going into New Jersey we had a lot of playoff experience there, and that helped me my first couple of years. So we'll try to help here that way.

"And not just in the playoffs, but just trying to get into the playoffs. Our games lately have been essentially playoff games, too, for us. We got to win them. There's a different atmosphere around the locker room. You try to keep everything in perspective. You lose one game in the playoffs and you think the world is ending. You win the next one and you think you’re winning the Cup."

Win the next one and the Wild are in. That shouldn't be hard to keep in perspective.

Morning jam: Ducks love home cooking

April, 8, 2013
4/08/13
9:41
AM ET
Ducks 4, Kings 3 (F/SO)
* Ducks: improve to 15-5 at home this season
* Ducks: won 4 of 6 following 4-game losing streak
* Dustin Brown (LA): Goal (15), assist; 9 points (6 G, 3 A) in last 6 games vs Ducks

Sabres 3, Devils 2 (F/SO)
* Devils: 7th straight loss (4 losses in OT or SO) - longest active losing streak in NHL; remain outside of playoff picture
* Devils: 2-7 in shootouts this season - most shootout losses in NHL
* Devils: have not been out-shot in any game during losing streak (out-shot opponents 221-156 including 39-26 today)
* Penguins: Clinch playoff berth with Devils loss

Blackhawks 5, Predators 3
* Blackhawks: clinch playoff spot (1st team in NHL to clinch this season)
* Blackhawks: 4-0-1 last 5 games
* Patrick Kane (CHI): 1 goal, 1 assists (20 goals this season, 2nd in Western Conference)
FROM ELIAS: The Blackhawks overcame a 3-2 deficit in the third period and posted a 5-3 win against Nashville that clinched a playoff spot for Chicago. Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews scored the game-winning goal at the 10:32 mark of the final period, only 55 seconds after he assisted on Brandon Saad's score-tying goal. Toews has scored 12 goals in the 19 games he's played since February 28. The only NHL player with more than a dozen goals since that date is Alex Ovechkin (17).

Capitals 4, Lightning 2
* Capitals: won 4 straight and 8 of last 10 (8-1-1)
* Alex Ovechkin (WSH): 2 goals (25); 8th consecutive season with at least 25 goals
* Ovechkin: 75th career game with 2+ goals (most since 2005-06 ... Ovechkin's rookie season)
* Vincent Lecavalier (TB): PP goal (8), assist; 7th multi-point game this season
FROM ELIAS: Alex Ovechkin scored two goals in the Capitals’ win over the Lightning on Sunday, after scoring three times in Washington’s victory against the Panthers on Saturday. It’s the fifth time that Ovechkin has scored five goals over a two-game span in his NHL career but the first since 2009 (January 31: two goals vs. Detroit, February 1: three goals vs. Ottawa).

Wild 3, Blue Jackets 0
* Niklas Backstrom (MIN): 24 saves; 28th career shutout (2nd this season)
* Jason Pominville (MIN): goal (11), assist; 1st points with Wild since being acquired from Sabres
* Wild: end 3-game losing streak with victory
* Blue Jackets: 2nd straight loss following a 3-game winning streak

Panthers 2, Senators 1
* Dmitry Kulikov (FLA): go-ahead PPG with 9:14 left in 3rd period (2nd goal of season)
* Scott Clemmensen (FLA): 40 saves (season high), 1st win since Feb. 26 (had lost previous 5 decisions)
* Panthers: 4-1-0 in last 5 games
* Senators: 4th straight loss (all in regulation); outscored 13-5 during losing streak

Stars 5, Sharks 4 (F/SO)
* Alex Chiasson (DAL): 2 goals (3)
* Loui Eriksson (DAL): scores game-tying goal 9:14 into 3rd period (10)
* Stars: 2nd straight win following a 3-game losing streak
* Sharks: 7-game winning streak ends

Blues 1, Red Wings 0
* Chris Porter: 2nd goal this season (both have been game-winning goals)
* Porter: 3 points last 3 games (2 points 1st 15 games this season)
* Blues: 4th straight win following 3-game losing streak
* Red Wings: 2-4-0 in last 6 games overall

We all like to point to statement games without acknowledging that those games and their importance last exactly the amount of time it takes to play the game. So you can rest assured that, although disappointed at being beaten 5-2 at Staples Center on Monday night by the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, the Anaheim Ducks won’t be hanging their heads for long. The Ducks, who were gunning for a franchise-record seventh straight victory, remain the Pacific Division leaders, holding a seven-point lead over the Kings and the Dallas Stars. They are 7-2-1 on the road, an impressive mark for a team that a year ago was a pedestrian 13-18-10 away from the Honda Center.

And the loss certainly doesn’t take the bloom off the rose that has been the play of unheralded Swedish netminder Viktor Fasth, who suffered his first loss of the season (he is 8-1-0). Fasth might have liked to have back Dustin Brown’s long snap shot that tied the score at 2-2 late in the second period, but it's really hard to fault him on the other three goals (Jeff Carter scored an empty-netter).

But if we accept that one loss does not mean the Ducks are any less real, Monday’s clash illustrated that the Kings are back for real. And that should make everyone in the Western Conference very, very nervous. Los Angeles won its fourth in a row in a manner that was reminiscent of almost any of its 16 playoff wins last spring. The Kings fell behind 1-0 and 2-1 but scored three in the third to take control of the game. They got goals from five players, including two from the blue line with Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin, on the power play, scoring.

The Kings have won six of their past seven and outscored opponents 23-10. The team’s best players are finally rounding into form, with Brown scoring in three straight games and Carter having scored in four straight and netted six goals in his past seven games. Even oft-criticized Dustin Penner got into the act, scoring his first goal since his overtime winner in Game 5 of the 2012 Western Conference finals. This is a bit apropos, given that the Kings look as if they’re finally getting that playoff feel once again.
The voice of a giggling child in the background suggests Dustin Brown has reclaimed some normalcy in his life.

The Los Angeles Kings' captain now has his family with him in Switzerland.

"They’ve been here about two weeks now," Brown told ESPN.com Thursday on the phone from Zurich. "It’s totally different with them here. It’s nice and relaxing."

[+] EnlargeDustin Brown
AP photo/Keystone/Alessandro della ValleDustin Brown received more lucrative offers to play in Russia, but thought Switzerland would be the best option for hockey and family life.
With his wife and three boys in Zurich, it’s about as much normalcy as he’s going to get these days. After all, six months after raising the Stanley Cup over his head, Brown still hasn’t begun defending his title while the NHL remains plagued by a labor impasse.

Instead, he has put up 10 points (six goals, four assists) in 10 games with former NHL coach Marc Crawford’s Zurich squad and, truth be told, he is enjoying the experience.

"It’s been good, the hockey is pretty good," said Brown, who played the best hockey of his career last spring. "The travel and lifestyle is good. Zurich is pretty centrally located, so I think the longest trip we had to a game was three hours. So we sleep in our bed most nights.

"My kids’ school is literally a football’s throw, so that’s nice. Everything has been good."

Planning for the possibility of a prolonged lockout, and perhaps even no NHL season, Brown had his family in mind when he chose to sign in Zurich.

"I’ve had offers in Russia and the money was better there but, at the end of the day, I wanted to protect myself for the whole year," he said. "This here provided the best combination of hockey and family life."

In the meantime, he keeps close tabs on the NHL labor talks.

"I’ve been on a lot of [players’] conference calls," Brown said. "I asked to get added to the call list so I can get more information and stay as updated as I can. Although now that I’m playing, quite honestly, I don’t think about it quite as much as I did before. When I was still in L.A., every single day it’s all I thought about. Now that I’m over here and keeping busy, I don’t think about it all the time, but obviously I still follow it closely."

Like many people, he sees both sides not being that far from a deal but has learned not to be surprised at anything in this frustrating process.

"I’m not there in the meetings, but from what I hear, it sure sounds like they’re close, so who knows," he said.

Even if the lockout ends soon and the puck drops in a few weeks, the damage is done. And in Los Angeles, it’s an opportunity lost after all the attention the sport garnered last spring.

"At the end of the day, it’s unfortunate timing for a lockout," Brown said. "I mean, lockouts are always unfortunate but, considering our market in California, it’s really hard to get momentum. And to lose that momentum due to a lockout is frustrating. The positive thing is that we still have those die-hard fans that will be really excited about the banner-raising, and we still have that part if there is a season this year. That excitement from that first game would bring attention back to hockey in L.A. because it’s such an important night for our team and organization, but it’s definitely unfortunate to have lost all the momentum that we had gained."

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