Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It's that time of year again. No, not just the start of the NHL playoffs. The actual meat of the postseason, when clubs with a serious shot at contention finally shake off the rust of the first few games and really hit their stride.
Depending on which way you see things, the Los Angeles Kings have forgotten how to lose, or remembered only how to win. Either way, the first royal regiment of hockey in southern California are in the midst of another stretch of hockey where it seems nothing can puncture their bubble.
Heading to the comforts of Staples Center later this evening, Darryl Sutter's squad has reeled off six consecutive victories, in the process raising themselves up from an 0-3 series hole against the rival San Jose Sharks to a comfortable 2-0 series edge against the rival Anaheim Ducks with the next two games on home ice.
That comes on the heels of an eight-game run two years ago which essentially sealed the franchise's fate as a force to be reckoned with, where the Kings put Vancouver to rest up 3-1 in the first round, then blitzed the Blues in four straight in the conference semis and stunned Phoenix over the first three meetings of the Western Conference finals. Last season, the defending champions looked to be dead in the water after losing two straight to open the playoffs in St. Louis, then roared back with six in a row, knocking off another supposed Cup contender and then getting a leg up on the Sharks on home ice which was needed in a seven-game death struggle.
This year's comeback has been accomplished through a renewed commitment to defense -- Jonathan Quick making a half-dozen spectacular saves per game doesn't hurt either -- and timely scoring from additions to the same core which won it all two Junes ago.
L.A. clocked in with the stingiest defense in the league, allowing a paltry 174 goals, an honor which has earned Quick the Jennings Trophy as the primary mover in the Kings' crease. Yet, when the playoffs began, Quick was besieged by Sharks swimming in from every direction. San Jose ripped home 13 goals in the first two games on home ice and appeared to have the first round locked up after Patrick Marleau's overtime marker in Game 3 gave the visitors a 4-3 win and what is usually an iron-clad advantage.
Since then, the Kings have allowed only eight goals, the primary reason they became just the fourth team in league history and fifth in professional sports to win four straight after losing the opening three in a best-of-seven series. Quick, the flashy and flexible 28-year-old Connecticut native, has done his part to restore faith that he can be a Conn Smythe Trophy threat, stopping 199-of-207 shots to backstop this two-week-long streak.
"We've always had expectations of winning a Cup every year, so nothing has changed inside the locker room," Quick admitted. "It's now people outside the locker room that see we have a good team now and now their expectations are up there."
The pivot point of the run occurred during Game 5 in San Jose. As in Game 2, L.A. raced out to a 2-0 first-period lead on goals from Tyler Toffoli and Anze Kopitar. But the visitors refused to let the middle of the ice become a superhighway or let a lack of discipline crush their hopes, as happened in a 7-2 loss on Easter Sunday. The difference-maker was not Marleau or Joe Pavelski, but Jeff Carter, whose tally just 22 seconds into the second provided a margin which the Sharks could not overcome.
In Game 6, it was more of the same. Deadlocked at 1-1 in the third period, Kopitar scored twice and Justin Williams once in a span of 2:46 late in regulation to force a Game 7. Once there, the Sharks were rendered helpless after five straight goals from Los Angeles, beginning with Drew Doughty's power-play strike less than five minutes into the middle frame eventually leading to a 5-1 series-clinching and history-making victory.
"It was a result of us staying together as a group of guys," noted Kings captain Dustin Brown to the L.A. Times. "When you've gone to the top of the mountain with the same group of guys it's a little bit easier when you're at the bottom to come up. That's what a lot of this team is about, our guys who have stuck together and played together for years and there's a belief system."
The boost in confidence and wave of momentum continued, even as Los Angeles remained on the road.
In the opener of the Western semifinals just five days ago, Marian Gaborik kept the Kings alive when he batted a puck out of the air and past Jonas Hiller from atop the crease with seven seconds left in regulation, then was allowed to stay on the doorstep to deflect Kopitar's pass for the winner at 12:07 of the fourth period.
"I think we showed, in the last series, that our team doesn't give up," Doughty stated. "We're a resilient team. We never once believed that we were going to lose that game, even when there was a minute left. We believed that we were going to get that goal. Maybe it was a lucky bounce or what not, but it doesn't matter how it went in. It went in."
During Monday's Game 2, the floor was yanked out from under the Ducks on an Alec Martinez left-point slapper to give the Kings a 2-1 lead in the opening period only 2:27 after Patrick Maroon ignited the Anaheim crowd with a power- play score to knot the game. Quick picked up the slack from there, making 27 saves over the final 40 minutes and Dwight King's empty netter sealed the deal inside of a minute remaining.
"We're not depressed," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau told the OC Register. "We're ready to play tomorrow, and hopefully play better and see where it ends up. I'd be more depressed if we didn't play any good and we lost, because I liked the way we did a lot of the things yesterday so hopefully we can continue to do that."
It's a familiar refrain by opposing coaches. Alain Vigneault, Ken Hitchcock, Todd McLellan and now Boudreau. They're pleased with the way their team played against the Kings, more often in defeat than not, because it's better to rest in the positives that maybe the bounces and the luck and the shots will go in next time. Recent history suggests otherwise. The 2014 playoffs have gained a rightful reputation where no lead -- either in a game or in a series -- is safe, and now that the Kings are barreling down the track, there's no comfort in staying alive after being broadsided by the train.
Los Angeles has reeled off an amazing 22-4 record from the third game of the opening round in 2012 through the end of the midpoint of their playoff sojourns leading up to Game 3. Right now, it appears the only way the Ducks can reverse their fortunes is to steal that magic away from the Kings in front of a hostile crowd. Hiller must channel Quick, Ryan Getzlaf has to find his inner Gaborik, while Teemu Selanne and the rest of the guys who remember 2007 have to crank up those inner fires to spread to the rest of the team.
Short of that, it's goofy to think the Kings haven't already staked a claim to their third straight Western final.