By the time the Kings came home to face the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 3 of the 1993 Campbell Conference finals, they had played 14 games and had traveled to Calgary twice, Vancouver twice, and Toronto for the first of three visits.
By comparison the current Kings’ journey to the West final against the Phoenix Coyotes — which resumes Thursday at Staples Center — has been a romp.
The Kings had to visit Vancouver twice to finish the Canucks in five games but left the Pacific time zone only once in their second-round sweep of the St. Louis Blues. Their dominance helped give them extra rest between rounds, vital for a team as physical as the Kings, who are now 10-1 in the postseason.
“When you look at it, it’s not very normal that you’ve only played this few of games in the third round,” Coach Darryl Sutter said.
They put themselves in position for another swift advancement by opening the West finals with two road wins for the third consecutive series. Again they showed that of all their strengths, their greatest might be their ability to tap into a depth of character.
Despite early and uncharacteristic wobbles by goaltender Jonathan Quick in Game 1, the Kings won on the backs of Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. While the Coyotes neutralized the Kopitar line Tuesday, third-line winger Dwight King’s deflection of a Drew Doughty shot gave the Kings the first goal for the eighth time in 11 playoff games and forced the Coyotes to scramble. Add a hat trick from the previously silent Jeff Carter and it became a triumph that Sutter said wasn’t as good as their first.
Still, center Jarret Stoll said the Kings haven’t steamrollered their way this far.
“It hasn’t been easy. We’ve had some adversity,” he said Wednesday. “We’ve had some tough games where we hadn’t had our ‘A’ game and we’ve needed our goaltender or our defense to bail us out.
“But as a four-line unit, six [defensemen] going out there, we’re in sync a little bit more than we were during the regular season. And we’re getting contributions from everybody. We’re winning different ways and that’s the way you’ve got to do it, I think, in the playoffs, if you’re going to go deep.”
Winger Dustin Penner said he first thought the Kings had a chance to win the Stanley Cup when they clinched a playoff spot, and in the most literal sense, that’s true. You can’t win it if you’re not in it and they squeezed in as the No. 8-seeded team.
“It’s kind of like poker. A chip and a chair,” Penner said.
But he believed they had enough chips to be serious players.
“From the guys that had been here before, we’d seen certain pieces of the puzzle on prior teams that either won it or had been to the Stanley Cup finals, on the team we have now,” he said.
Coyotes forward Radim Vrbata, who has followed a 35-goal regular-season performance with two playoff goals, said these Kings aren’t the team he faced a few months ago.
“For some reason they were not scoring goals during the season. They had a tough time doing that,” he said. “Right now it seems like they found their game, they’re just rolling with it.”
The Kings are rolling with the punches and the slashes, hacks and whacks. While the frustrated Coyotes paraded to the penalty box Tuesday, the Kings stayed calm and made them pay with two five-on-three goals. The NHL — which has owned the Coyotes for three years — made them pay by suspending center Martin Hanzal for Thursday’s game to punish his dangerous third-period hit on Brown.
“We haven’t yet elevated our game to where it needs to be when we’re this close to the Stanley Cup finals,” Coyotes goalie Mike Smith said. “We recognize that.”
But they might not have much time to do something about it. The Kings have been too poised to retaliate and too patient to rattle.
“As far as we’re concerned they’ve got to adjust to us and as long as we keep playing our game, keep playing the way we want to play, hopefully that’s what they’ll have to do,” Stoll said. “We’ve got to worry about ourselves. We can’t worry about them. Obviously our game is in the right place and we’re winning hockey games so we can’t change anything.”