We know how the Kings got here, to this precipice, to the point their chances to repeat as Stanley Cup champions essentially rest on winning Thursday at Calgary. And even that might not be enough, but that's all they can control after painful losses at Vancouver and Edmonton symbolized the way much of their season has gone.
The question is, where do they go from here: home for the summer, as the first defending champion to miss the playoffs since Carolina won in 2006 and didn't qualify in 2007, or to the postseason on the breath of the near-miracle that's now required?
This isn't new territory for a team that has thrived on suspense. They sneaked in as the No. 8 seed in 2012 and then blazed to a 3-0 lead in all four rounds, needing only 20 games to win the Cup. Last spring they escaped elimination four times in the first round and seven times overall, prevailing in three Game 7s on the road before defeating the New York Rangers in a five-game Cup Final.
They've always had one more push in them, one more show of defiance.
"We know what it takes," defenseman Jake Muzzin said after the team's dispiriting 4-2 loss Tuesday at Edmonton.
Knowing what they must do and having the physical and mental reserves to do it are not the same.
They've played 64 playoff games the past three seasons, the most by any NHL team in a three-season span. For a physical team such as the Kings, that adds up to a lot of bumps and bruises — and worse. Many key players also competed in the Sochi Olympics last year, putting heavy mileage on their legs and bodies. That toll was visible Tuesday at Edmonton, and even before that in their lack of pushback after sweeping a three-game trip through New York and New Jersey late last month.
The Kings also are victims of their success, and to factors no one could have anticipated.
Salary cap concerns led General Manager Dean Lombardi to let 37-year-old defensive stalwart Willie Mitchell leave as a free agent last summer, a choice that was debatable but defensible — or so it seemed at the time. Lombardi, intent on keeping together a group that had learned to win together, retained Matt Greene over Mitchell because Greene was more of a locker-room leader, more a part of the core.
Still, the Kings might have coped if they hadn't lost Slava Voynov in October after the Russian defenseman was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence. (He later was charged with a felony). His absence meant other defensemen had to take on more minutes or step up to a level beyond their capabilities. At times injuries took away three of the team's top six defensemen. Drew Doughty was overworked and his production declined, but it's difficult to blame Coach Darryl Sutter for playing his most talented and durable player nearly half of each game.
Lombardi has made far more good decisions than bad ones, but he let sentiment overrule reason when he passed up a chance to use a compliance buyout on fading center Mike Richards before the deadline last summer. Richards' $5.75-million cap hit would have been freed for better uses, but Lombardi let himself believe Richards would get into better shape. Lombardi also felt he owed players the right to stay together as a reward for their successful playoff runs.
Richards, unable to recapture his old form, contributed little before being waived and sent to the American Hockey League. He was recalled in March, when Sutter wanted more experience at center in place of youngsters Nick Shore and Andy Andreoff, but he had no impact. Strength up the middle was one of the team's great assets in its Cup runs, but Richards' decline and a mediocre season from Jarret Stoll erased that edge.
Then too there are the Kings' inexplicable failures in overtime (1-7) and shootouts (2-8). Where was the scoring that would have spared them these one-goal losses? Among the missing was team captain Dustin Brown, though he wasn't alone in experiencing long slumps. Right wing Justin Williams, a clutch scorer last spring, never had a regular playmaking center and never hit stride. Losing left wing Tanner Pearson to a broken leg took precious speed out of the lineup. At the other end, goaltender Jonathan Quick struggled at times, partly because of the defensive chaos in front of him.
If the Kings are heading home instead of to the playoffs, they should go out with a fiery effort Thursday and Saturday. It's the right thing to do, and the first step toward climbing back atop the mountain they've occupied these past three seasons.