CHICAGO — It was only a theory, but the thoughts Dean Lombardi expressed a few years ago on how a losing team evolves from pretender to contender made a lot of sense.
First, a team hopes it can win — hope being the key word because it lacks the talent and tools to win regularly. As its depth and skill increase, that team progresses to thinking it can win. Finally, as players mature and the roster stabilizes, the team knows it can win and expects to win — and does.
The Kings have gone through each of those stages. They went from only hoping to win while Lombardi scrambled to replenish their talent early in his tenure as their general manager, to being good enough to believe they could win even though they weren’t quite ready, and then on to winning the Stanley Cup last spring.
Is the next logical step in that evolution expecting to win again?
“It’s one thing to have success and another thing dealing with it,” team captain Dustin Brown said Friday, “and that’s what we’re learning to do this year.”
They’ve learned the hard way, getting through most of the season without top-six defensemen Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene before grinding their way past the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks to reach the Western Conference finals against the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks. The Kings are the first defending champion to survive the second round since the Detroit Red Wings’ repeat bid ended in Game 7 of the 2009 finals.
“Even winning the first round after winning it is an accomplishment,” Lombardi said. “That’s where you talk about the growth and the little touchstones along the way. And the fact that it did get harder.”
As tough as the first two playoff rounds were, their next step looms as more difficult. The Blackhawks are deep and fast and still have the core of their 2010 Cup team. They know how to win too, and they will test the Kings physically and mentally in a series that begins with the rush of back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday at the United Center.
To get this far, the Kings have had to conquer challenges they avoided during a relatively smooth run last spring. Falling into a 2-0 series deficit against the Blues. Losing center Jarret Stoll to a concussion. Being pushed to a seventh game by the Sharks. All this after facing the best efforts all season from opponents who wanted to beat the champs.
The Kings have responded well to each new test, pushing on to the next phase on Lombardi’s evolutionary chart.
“There is a progression here,” Lombardi said. “There’s another level that an athlete should want to reach, even after they’ve won one. To be part of a franchise in the mode of the Red Wings, the Packers, the Patriots, there’s another level they should strive for.
“You’re far from being the best you can be as an individual and as a team. I think we’re progressing toward that.”
Lombardi and Coach Darryl Sutter pointed to a Feb. 10 loss at Detroit as a crucial point of the season. The Kings outplayed the Red Wings, outshot them, 47-31, and tied the score with just under a minute left in the third period only to lose on a shot that trickled through Jonathan Quick with 4.5 seconds left. The loss left them 3-5-2 and could have tipped the season irretrievably in the wrong direction.
“I think a lesser team says, ‘Heck with it, we’ll do it next year,’” Lombardi said.
That didn’t happen. As Sutter pointed out, they didn’t get where they are by accident. Some of the faces have changed, but the resolve that fueled their 2012 rise from No. 8 seed in the West to Cup champion hadn’t faded.
“You can’t say our goal is to win the Stanley Cup, because everybody’s goal is to win the Stanley Cup. You have to do it in steps,” Sutter said. “Our step was to improve on things we wanted to get better at from last year. That’s what we focused on, that’s what we did. At the end, everything we talked about, we accomplished, which says a lot about the group.”
And about the coach.
The next step for the Kings is developing that expectation of winning again. A few years ago that was only a wild dream. Now, it makes a lot of sense.