When the Ducks were flailing early this season, when their defense was atrocious and General Manager Bob Murray thought about trading one of the big three of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan to get help, players stepped up to reverse course.
Toni Lydman became a steadying force. Rookie Cam Fowler played like a poised veteran. Lubomir Visnovsky began piling up points and went on to lead NHL defensemen in scoring, earning Norris trophy consideration. Jonas Hiller became an All-Star goaltender.
When Getzlaf suffered facial fractures and missed more than a month, the Ducks bent but didn't break. When Hiller developed vertigo, free agent Ray Emery came out of nowhere and Dan Ellis came from Tampa Bay to stop the puck and stop the bleeding.
Right wing Perry, who never went more than three games without a point — and only twice after the season's first three games — had a league-leading 50 goals and 98 points. Teemu Selanne energized their power play. Ryan produced his third straight 30-goal season and a career-best 71 points. Saku Koivu finished strong.
"Your elite-level players have to be difference-makers, and ours definitely were," said Coach Randy Carlyle, whose fourth-seeded team will open the playoffs at home Wednesday against Nashville.
When the Kings' power play sputtered, when second-leading scorer Justin Williams suffered a dislocated shoulder and top scorer Anze Kopitar injured his ankle and needed season-ending surgery, when the Kings needed a few players to step up a little, they got … little.
Dustin Brown has done what he can but not one King had a career year. They had six 20-goal scorers but no game-breaker, a slow, popgun offense that ran out of bullets.
Williams was cleared to practice Monday, three weeks after his injury. If someone is going to step up — Williams, defenseman Jack Johnson, who was so dynamic in last spring's playoff loss to Vancouver, left wing Dustin Penner, who has no points in 12 games and no goals in his last 13, or winger Alexei (five goals) Ponikarovsky — the time is Thursday, when their playoff series against the second-seeded, Pacific Division champion Sharks starts in San Jose.
The Sharks have their playoff demons but seem steadier and deeper than before their previous postseason implosions. The Kings could have avoided this matchup by winning one of their two season-ending games against the Ducks. Instead of finishing fourth, they landed a disappointing seventh with 98 points, three fewer than last season.
"Everyone's got to hit the reset button," Brown said. "It's a new season, whether you had a good season or a bad season. It's a new opportunity in front of all of us.
"We have a chance to play in the playoffs again and that's easy to get up for. Last year we were a young team, a lot of guys had never been in the playoffs. We were so excited. Now we have a little bit more experience with it and we know what's at stake."
The Kings ended with more questions than certainties. Can they create some offense? Can their power play become even semi-efficient? Maybe, if Penner is stationed in front of the net and not 60 feet away, Johnson and Drew Doughty stop overpassing and teammates can provide screens or deflections.
"We have some work to do. We knew that going in, no matter who we were playing, home ice or not home ice, we have work to do," goaltender Jonathan Quick said. "We'll be ready to play."
The Ducks lost three of four games against Nashville this season, but their fast finish suggests they have the resources to overcome the tight-checking Predators.
"This puts an exclamation point on how far this team has come," Carlyle said. "We found a way to get ourselves in good position from where we were a couple months ago.
"I don't think anyone picked us to have home ice advantage at any point, but it's funny how things fall into your lap when you win your fair share of games. This goes back to our players — they've earned this."
The Kings have earned a chance to push that reset button Brown mentioned and to salvage something from a season that was supposed to be a step forward but has instead shown how far they still have to go.