Los Angeles Kings never lost magic touch on road to Cup finals


GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Clarence Campbell bowl, awarded to the champion of the NHL’s Western Conference, is not what the Kings dreamed of lifting or kissing or winning this season.

Always, their goal was to win the Stanley Cup, as preposterous as it seemed while their offense went stale and they struggled to score goals and went through the turmoil of a midseason coaching change. Sometimes it seemed that they alone believed, that they alone saw what they could become with the right tweaks and right coach and right approach.

Their faith was justified Tuesday, when they earned a berth in the Stanley Cup finals with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Phoenix Coyotes at Arena and won the West title in a gritty, contentious five-game series.

Seconds after Dustin Penner’s rebound from the slot eluded Phoenix goaltender Mike Smith 17 minutes and 42 seconds into sudden-death play, a red carpet was unfurled on the ice, a table was plunked down on the carpet and the Campbell bowl was brought out in all its gleaming glory.

Kings captain Dustin Brown, vilified by fans moments earlier for a knee-on-knee hit that had sent Phoenix defenseman Michal Rozsival off to the locker room for repairs, stood awkwardly next to the table while debris rained down from the stands. He smiled a gap-toothed smile as he stood beside NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly but never, ever put a finger on the Campbell bowl.

“I’m not touching the trophy,” Brown said in the happy chaos of the Kings’ locker room.

“It’s called the Stanley Cup playoffs for a reason. I didn’t want to be near it.”

But starting next Wednesday at the home of the East champion — either the New York Rangers or the New Jersey Devils — the Kings will make the franchise’s second-ever Cup finals appearance and first since 1993, the season that has always been the Kings’ touchstone and turning point.

They could not win the Cup during the era that future Hall of Fame players Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri and Luc Robitaille graced their lineup. They traded Gretzky for next-to-nothing, went through a too-long and too-painful rebuilding process that even in the final days of the 2011-12 regular season looked incomplete.

What they couldn’t accomplish two decades ago is now within their grasp thanks to a team that might lack superstars but never lacked heart or hope while entering the playoffs as the No. 8-seeded team. The Kings took out the West’s top three seeded teams in 1-2-3 order, held on course by the shrewd coaching of blunt, plain-spoken Darryl Sutter.

He deserves an infinite amount of credit for reinforcing his players’ confidence when it dragged, for persuading them they could be creative without losing their defensive chops, for overseeing a penalty-killing unit that produced the team’s fifth short-handed goal of the playoffs on Tuesday.

But he was content to sit back and let them have the glory, another in a series of brilliant coaching moves.

“I’m proud of the players. That’s the biggest thing for me,” he said. “Hell of an accomplishment for the players. That’s what it’s about.

“They’re the guys that sweat and bleed. That’s what it’s about. I know from being a player. I’m proud of them guys.”

It was appropriate that Penner, who had a miserable season on and off the ice yet found comfort in humor and ultimately pulled himself up to his teammates’ level in postseason play, scored the decisive goal.

His rebound ended a courageous effort by the Coyotes, who had lost the first three games of the series but prolonged their season by blanking the Kings at Staples Center on Sunday.

The Coyotes’ best efforts Tuesday were not enough. They were bitter enough to bark at Brown in the traditional post-series handshake line, still angry over the hit on Rozsival , but they were beaten by a better team, a deeper team.

“L.A. played well,” Coyotes Coach Dave Tippett said. “Early in the series they played very well. Ultimately, the last two games, I thought were our best games, but they were too late.

“L.A. beat us. That’s what should be remembered, not the refereeing.”

The Kings now have a week to rest, rejuvenate and realize that their dream is still alive.

They are almost to the promised land — which they always promised themselves they could reach.