After the Kings' final game last season, with a long, playoff-less summer looming, Dustin Brown spoke up in the locker room. Remember how awful this feels, he told his teammates. Remember every painful bit so clearly and hate it so much that you'll never want to feel that way again.
Brown was reminded of that moment Thursday morning, barely 12 hours after the Kings had clinched a playoff spot through the St. Louis Blues' loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Wednesday night. They had, after changing their coach and their general manager last summer and after enduring anxious days during the season, made it back to postseason play. Caught up in the grind of the schedule while they nursed bumps and bruises, they forgot Brown's advice.
With their season on the line the last few weeks they took his words to heart and resolved not to subject themselves to that gnawing sense of regret and anger again.
"It's important to remember how that feels," Brown said before scoring four goals, including the winner, in the Kings' 5-4 overtime victory over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday night at Staples Center. "I think it can be a very big motivator for a team that's hungry, to understand. Luckily we have a lot of guys in here who have won, so they know what that feels like. They know what they're missing out on every year."
They might not know their first-round matchup until Saturday night, but at least they're back in. That's all they wanted, a chance. They've earned it. "Some guys hate losing more than they like winning," said Brown, who is among that group.
Their return to the playoffs could not have happened without an astonishing turnaround by Brown, whose 28 goals are three more than he scored in the last two seasons combined, and the rebirth of Anze Kopitar, whose career-best 91 points and defensive excellence make him a contender for NHL most valuable player honors. It could not have happened without replacing Darryl Sutter with John Stevens, who quickened the team's pace and gave players offensive freedom without compromising a solid defensive structure.
The Stanley Cup-winning core of Brown, Kopitar, defenseman Drew Doughty and goaltender Jonathan Quick has carried the Kings this far. To keep going into May and June they'll need more production from Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson and Adrian Kempe. Stevens said Thursday morning he wanted his team to spend more time in the offensive zone than it had in recent games, and the Kings did that against Minnesota, but their late lapses allowed the Wild to erase a two-goal deficit. The Kings remain vulnerable against speedy teams and hard-forechecking teams, and injuries to defensemen Jake Muzzin and Derek Forbort leave Stevens with big holes to fill. But it's still significant the Kings have gotten to this point when none of it was guaranteed.
"I think we put ourselves in a position all along that we controlled our own destiny. A lot of teams that are in the same situation talked about that, but we have," Stevens said. "And I think our guys have done a really good job. At critical moments of our season here we got some key points, maybe none bigger than that last road trip we had," he said, referring to his team's earning five of eight points at Minnesota, Winnipeg, Colorado and Edmonton to stay in the playoff scramble.
Although their clinching was a moment they had long awaited, no one celebrated. Kopitar was home Wednesday night playing with his kids, "just running around the house," and not monitoring NHL scores. The sudden, constant buzzing of his cellphone told him all he needed to know. "You're happy to see that check mark next to the team's name, so it's a good feeling, but at the same time you can't get ahead of yourself," he said Thursday. "It's business like usual today and I guess now we're playing for seeding and who we're going to face in the first round. You just really want to get your team game in order and make sure that whenever the first game is going to be, you're ready and at the top of your game."
They're not at that point yet, but they're not where they were a year ago. Nor are they feeling the anger they felt then. "It's embarrassing not making the playoffs," Doughty said. On Thursday he called it "rewarding" to reach the playoffs, but added that he and his teammates aren't satisfied. "We've got a new goal set," he said, "and we're looking forward to that challenge."
Some nights it's more of a challenge than others, but Brown and the Kings prevailed Thursday.
That's a start.