LOS ANGELES -- Dustin Brown still remembers what it felt like. As much as he wishes he could simply forget the final games of the past two seasons, they have stuck with him like a wound that just won't heal.
He and seven current teammates were forced to bow their heads, line-up on their home ice at Staples Center and one-by-one congratulate the Vancouver Canucks in 2010 and then the San Jose Sharks in 2011 after being eliminated from the playoffs in front of their own fans. It's never fun to be knocked out of the postseason but making it a home-ice tradition was a difficult pill for Brown to swallow.
That all changed Sunday as the Los Angeles Kings beat the St. Louis Blues, 3-1, at Staples Center to complete their first four-game sweep in franchise history and advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 1993. It was also the first time since 2001 that the Kings had won a series at home and won consecutive playoff games at home.
The Kings' struggles at home in the postseason have been well documented. They had lost five straight home playoff games coming into this postseason despite winning seven straight road playoff games, one win shy of the NHL postseason record. The disparity had become such a problem that Kings coach Darryl Sutter took to treating home games like road games this series; putting the team up at a local hotel and conducting morning skates at Staples Center instead of the Kings' training facility.
None of the Kings' players or coaches would credit their hotel accommodations before the game for the win but those who have been with the team the past three seasons did credit their past two postseason runs with helping them make the franchise's longest postseason run in nearly two decades.
"We learned as a group that it's about the little things and it shows in the way that we're playing now," Brown said. "It's about everyone. We've only gone half as far as we want to go, but from top to bottom you have everyone in here doing all the little things right and when you have everyone doing that, it has a snowball effect on the team. When you have everyone doing the little things and guys elevating their games it becomes a fun atmosphere to be a part of."
After the Kings' Game 3 win over St. Louis, Sutter addressed the team and the media as though the Kings had lost. He was short, to the point and his message was loud and clear when he got in front of both groups. "We haven't done anything," he said. "You don't get anything for winning three games."
It was a message the Kings continually repeated over the past 48 hours as they waited for Game 4 to finally come around. They found out against Vancouver that the clinching game is always the hardest and continued their maturation process by not making the same mistakes Sunday as they did in their Game 4 loss to the Canucks in the first round.
After taking a 1-0 lead on a goal by Kings center Jordan Nolan in the first period, the Kings gave up a goal to Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk seven minutes later. It was reminiscent of the start of their Game 4 loss to Vancouver, the Kings' only loss of the postseason, when the Kings scored first before giving up the next three goals to lose 3-1. This time the Kings would finish the game with a 3-1 victory after two goals by Brown sealed the biggest Kings victory in 19 years.
Brown's last goal was an empty-netter with 26 seconds left to clinch the win as he got past Shattenkirk and was abruptly tackled by teammate Anze Kopitar.
"Once I got around him, 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 is. He jumped two feet in the air. It was a big step for this team. It's the first time a lot of guys have experienced this. We'll enjoy it tonight but we don't just want to be known as the team that got past the second round."
If the playoffs have been a coming out party for the Kings, no player has been a bigger revelation than Brown, who was reportedly being shopped around the league at the trade deadline. It was a difficult time for Brown, the longest tenured King and the captain of the team, having to regularly read and hear his name mentioned in trade rumors.
"He's my roommate on the road, so obviously we talked about it," Drew Doughty said. "Right before the trade deadline he got a hat trick and ever since then, he's been one of, if not our best forward. Without a doubt, he's played great every game defensively, hitting guys hard and putting up points. He's a great leader."
Brown, who has scored six goals in the playoffs and has 11 points, has avoided talking about the trade deadline rumors during the postseason but said his hat trick coming when it did as the rumors were swirling around him was probably more than merely a coincidence. "You're motivated when your name is out there," Brown said. "Not to say I wasn't motivated before that but you have a chip on your shoulder when stuff is being said about you."
Many of the Kings, including their coach, continued to act as though they had a chip on their shoulder after Sunday's win, refusing to get too excited with simply reaching the Western Conference finals. Most players said the team was simply halfway through its intended journey.
"The Kings organization has never won the [Stanley] Cup and that's exactly what we're here to do," Doughty said. "We're here to win the next series, go to the next one and win the Cup and be the first team in Kings franchise history to do that."