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Home Fires Burn Bright for Kings

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was only 15 days ago that the Kings, fighting fears they might be swept out of the playoffs by the Detroit Red Wings for a second consecutive season, came home to Staples Center seeking support and salvation.

They insisted they could play better than they had shown in their 5-3 and 4-0 losses, but knew it was time to give life to those words. They knew their season hung in the balance and the fans who had been so exhilarated when they grabbed the seventh seed in the West were desperate to grab onto the slightest bit of encouragement.

The Kings needed encouragement too. And they got it from the fans who filled the cavernous arena with a joyful din.

“The crowd was tremendous for us in the Detroit series and was a big advantage for us, especially in Game 3,” defenseman Mathieu Schneider said Sunday. “We came home after losing the first two games at Detroit and weren’t sure how they’d react, but they were really behind us.

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“After stealing one [at Colorado] I’m sure the fans are going to be just as excited this time.”

Riding the crowd’s roaring, pulsing energy, the Kings won Games 3 and 4 at home to tie their first-round series.

After winning Game 5 at Detroit, the Kings finished off the Red Wings, 3-2, in overtime at home in Game 6.

The Kings--who split the first two games of their second-round series against the Colorado Avalanche at Denver--and Toronto Maple Leafs (2-0) are the only playoff teams with perfect home records. The Kings will try to maintain that tonight against the Avalanche, which was 2-0 on the road in sweeping its first-round series against the Vancouver Canucks, but is 0-4 at Staples Center and 3-10-2 in Los Angeles since the franchise moved from Quebec to Colorado.

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“The fans were great last time,” King Coach Andy Murray said, “and it’s going to be a great crowd again [tonight].”

The home victories that have lifted the Kings’ spirits also have reinforced the club’s bottom line.

King President Tim Leiweke said the three home sellouts against Detroit and home sellouts today and Wednesday against Colorado--with a third sellout guaranteed next Sunday if the series goes six games--have helped slice in half a projected deficit of about $5 million. If the Kings advance to the conference finals, they might break even or make a small profit, he said.

That windfall, however, won’t go directly to next season’s payroll. The payroll already has been budgeted at $40 million, an increase of about 10% from this season, and must be stretched to cover re-signing free agents such as goaltender Felix Potvin, defenseman Mathieu Schneider and left wing Luc Robitaille.

For now, though, Leiweke is focusing on the Kings’ bankroll of legitimacy, which has been growing with each victory.

“The important thing is increasing everyone’s confidence in us. We have credibility now,” he said. “People believe in us and believe in our team and that we’ve built a solid foundation.”

Leiweke said principal owner Philip Anschutz, who shuns interviews and remains a mystery to fans, hasn’t given him a mandate to make a profit this season.

“That’s not his overriding desire,” Leiweke said. “His main concern is building a good organization that has credibility. The respect factor is more important than whether or not we break even. . . . As far as our payroll, we’re still trying to make financial sense with this franchise and do what is responsible in the context of the NHL.”

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Leiweke anticipates a noisier and more festive atmosphere tonight than in the Detroit series.

“I think the level of intensity in our building is going to be a surprise, and I think our fans are going to make the difference in the game,” he said. “Our guys are going to play better at home because of our fans.”

Before the fans can help them, the Kings need to help themselves.

To juice up the power play, which is one for eight in the series, Murray probably will restore Lubomir Visnovsky to the lineup. The Slovakian defenseman said the injured left wrist that sidelined him four games feels better and doesn’t impair his shooting. “I would say he’s gone from 90% to 100%,” Murray said, adding he will decide today whether to dress seven defenseman or sit another defenseman so Visnovsky can play.

“We’re sitting 1-1 with Colorado, and I’m looking at it as we’ve got some guys who can play harder,” Murray said.

“For us to say we’re going to go into games and outchance the Avalanche, I don’t know that we can say that. But we can say we can beat them if we outwork them.

“We haven’t been getting that second shot and third shot, and you can give credit to the Avalanche, but I’d rather not give them credit because that would mean we can’t do anything about it. . . .

“The reason we have hope in this series is because we think we can be better. If we didn’t think we could be better, we’d be in trouble.

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“Playing the way we have, we’ve been real close. Our big hope is we can play better, as it was after the first two games of the Detroit series, because some of our individual players can play better.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

KINGS vs. AVALANCHE

* GAME 1KINGS 4, at Colorado 3 (OT)

* GAME 2at Colorado 2, KINGS 0

* TONIGHT at Kings, 6:30 p.m., ESPN

* WEDNESDAYat Kings, 7 p.m., FSN and ESPN2

* FRIDAYat Colorado, 5 p.m., FSN2 and ESPN

* SUNDAYat Kings, 6:30 p.m., FSN and ESPN2*

* MAY 9at Colorado, 7 p.m., FSN and ESPN2*

* if necessary; all times Pacific

*

LOOKING FOR LUC

Luc Robitaille must step up his game if the Kings are to advance past Colorado, Elliott Teaford writes. D13


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