The Kings’ perilous playoff path this spring has been nothing like the pleasure cruise they took two years ago on the way to winning their first Stanley Cup championship.
After battling to get into the playoffs in 2012 and grabbing the eighth seed, they surprisingly built a 3-0 lead in each series and swept their second-round matchup against St. Louis, highlighting a stunning 16-4 run. They were in command every step of the way. Efficient. Dominant.
Contrast that to the bumpy road they took to reach the Western Conference finals, in which they’ll meet the Blackhawks starting on Sunday at the United Center. This run has been equally remarkable but it’s at the opposite, high end of the drama scale.
The Kings have jammed a season’s worth of winning and losing streaks into two series. They’ve fought off elimination six times, four against San Jose in the first round and two more against the Ducks in the conference semifinals. In each series they lost three straight games and had to win a Game 7 on the road. Each time they prevailed in a rout.
“This time we’re working,” Kings center Jarret Stoll said Saturday. “Working from behind, and working.”
Their persistence has propelled them to their third straight conference final and the rematch they craved for a year, since they were too battered to put up much of a fight and lost to eventual champion Chicago in five games.
They’re more prepared for Chicago this time, they say, not only because they have fewer injuries but because they’ve learned how to deal with adversity as skillfully as they handled prosperity two years ago.
“That’s part of the reason we’re feeling pretty confident right now,” said center Anze Kopitar, the NHL playoff scoring leader with 19 points. “It’s that, and two years ago we were waiting to see who was going to play in the finals with us from the 14-game mark, really. So it’s different.
“This time of the year it gets harder and harder and everybody realizes that, but we’re going to be ready.”
It’s a testament to their depth that the Kings got this far despite losing defensemen Robyn Regehr and Willie Mitchell to injuries. Coach Darryl Sutter said Saturday it’s possible that Mitchell, whose injury he described as a muscle pull related to a previous knee injury, could return during this series.
“We’re definitely in better physical shape, for sure,” Stoll said. “We were kind of limping into it last year.
“We’re definitely in a better place this year mentally as well. We know how hard we can push ourselves in different situations that this group maybe hadn’t been in, in the past, and now we have. We’re looking forward to this series a lot.”
They’re striding confidently forward, though they expect a formidable challenge from a team that led the NHL during the regular season with 267 goals — the Kings ranked 25th, with 206 — and seems to have found its stride defensively during the playoffs.
Although the Kings’ success has rested on their cohesive team defense — they allowed the fewest goals in the NHL during the regular season — Chicago’s 2.04 postseason goals-against average is the best in the playoffs. But in another twist, the usually light-scoring Kings have filled the net during the playoffs by averaging a playoff-leading 3.21 goals per game. Kopitar and Gaborik are 1-2 in league scoring and Justin Williams is seventh, with 11 points. Kopitar was their regular-season scoring leader and he ranked 17th in the NHL.
“It’s different. Nobody expected us to score that much,” Kopitar said. “But this series starts at zero and none of those numbers really matter until it’s all said and done.”
What matters is how they navigate this next step, against a team that commands respect.
“They have three or four of the best players by position in the world on their team. That’s why they’re the defending champion,” Sutter said Saturday before the Kings traveled to Chicago.
“They know how to win, and I think we do too. It will be a good series, I think.”
It surely won’t be an easy series. But as the Kings have discovered, navigating wild twists and turns can be just as smooth a ride if both roads lead to success.