- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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LOS ANGELES -- In a playoff year that seemingly refuses to produce an obvious Stanley Cup favorite, we offer up the Los Angeles Kings.
You know, those same guys who became the first No. 8 seed in NHL history to knock off the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the same playoff year.
Surely that must vault the Kings into the top contending spot in the NHL playoffs with the four teams in the Eastern Conference meandering their way toward long second-round series?
"They're the best team that we've played," Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They play the way you have to play to win the Cup now. They play the game the right way."
The poster boys for parity in the NHL, the Kings have found their high gear at just the right time of the year.
The question is, just where exactly was this version of the Kings hiding all year?
Captain Dustin Brown says his team began to gain confidence in mid-March during a six-game win streak that came at the expense of Chicago, Detroit, Anaheim, Anaheim, Nashville, San Jose and St. Louis -- big wins against good teams.
But star blueliner Drew Doughty thinks the Kings' true Eureka moment came 24 hours into the playoffs north of the border.
"I think it was right after that first playoff game," Doughty said. "It's only one game but it was against the top team in the league for the last two years. We played great against them that first game and ever since that point, we knew we had a great team in here. We knew we could finally score goals and we knew our defense is probably one of the best in the league. It was great to finally get that confidence under our belts because now it's really showing out there."
This is also about growth. The Kings lost to the Canucks in 2010 in the first round. They got knocked out by the San Jose Sharks last spring in the first round. Those are valuable experiences no matter how much they hurt at the time.
"Over the course of the disappointment that's gone on here for 3-4 years, they figured it out," Hitchcock said. "I'm sure they had stumbles along the way to try and figure it out, but they look to me like they figured it out."
And of course, there's the decision by GM Dean Lombardi to bring in his old San Jose pal Darryl Sutter to coach the team. Simply brilliant as it turns out.
He's got players on this team dialed in like never before, especially emotionally. Coaches around the NHL constantly talk about the "buy-in" factor. The Kings' players have emptied their pockets buying in here under Sutter.
"Every guy on this team played his heart out in this series," Doughty said. "It showed on the ice and that's why we got four in a row."
Brown had another brilliant series, capping it with two more goals on Sunday.
"I think it's fitting he scored the winner," Sutter observed.
Ever since those trade rumors came out about Brown in late February, he's been a man possessed. A big hit, a big goal, he's done it all this spring. The Kings' captain is challenging Jonathan Quick as the team's MVP through two rounds.
The Kings' netminder was sensational again Sunday afternoon, stopping 23 of 24 shots and robbing Alex Pietrangelo in a goal-mouth scramble in the third period that should have been a tying goal.
"I think you need great goaltending to win every game that you play in the playoffs," Sutter said.
Great? Hitchcock elevated Quick to another category.
"He's the same as [Dominik] Hasek, same as [Ed] Belfour, never quits on a puck," the Blues coach said. "It's a very unique skill. It's not common. He never stops looking for a puck."
Quick isn't a spotlight seeker. Talking about himself is like we're asking him to pull out his own teeth. He'd rather other teammates got the praise. He just wants to win.
"It's the time of the year when you have to enjoy hockey," the Vezina Trophy nominee said. "It's the time of the year when you don't know if you are going to have another game, so you just try to enjoy every day and try to enjoy the game as much as you can."
There were a lot of smiles around that dressing room Sunday. And the buzz in the rink was unreal. The Kings are in the conference finals for the first time since 1993.
For the longest-serving (or is it longest-suffering?) King, it's been a long time coming.
Brown sat back in his stall Sunday and smiled: "I'm pretty excited right now but it's one of those things where you wake up tomorrow and realize you're just halfway done of where we want to go."
Buckle up, Kings fans, the journey is far from over.
In a playoff year that seemingly refuses to produce an obvious Stanley Cup favorite, we offer up the Los Angeles Kings, writes Pierre LeBrun.