Dustin Brown remembers the last time he lost the final game of the season, that he was dissatisfied and disappointed and then had to shake hands with players he had just tried to check into submission.
The Kings’ captain last felt that sensation in 2011, after a first-round Stanley Cup playoff series against the San Jose Sharks. In 2010, Brown and the Kings were happy simply to be in the playoffs and their six-game loss to Vancouver represented progress. Their six-game dismissal by the Sharks was different, casting doubt on the Kings’ long and often painful rebuilding plan.
Tempered by defeat, the core of that team went on to win four playoff rounds in an exhilarating Cup run last year. Their ride didn’t get perilous until they bumped hard into St. Louis this spring, and it took many curious twists while they split the first six games of their second-round series against the Sharks.
After enjoying success, Brown doesn’t want to experience that sinking feeling of defeat again any time soon. Certainly not on Tuesday, when the Kings will face the Sharks at Staples Center for a berth in the Western Conference finals.
“You always remember what it feels like to lose,” Brown said Monday. “You almost have to lose before you learn how to win. It’s a motivating factor. When you have that feeling, it stays with you.”
Brown and the Kings took a tremendous leap last season, as they built 3-0 series leads in all four rounds and lost only four games. They’ve already lost five games this spring. Injuries and ineffectiveness have led them to use more players in 12 playoff games than they did in 20 a year ago.
In addition, this group hasn’t played a Game 7 together. For years the Kings weren’t good enough to get seven games deep into the playoffs, and last spring they were too good for any opponent to take them that far. Eight Kings played in a Game 7 elsewhere, but one of them, concussed center Jarret Stoll, won’t play Tuesday.
If the lack of Game 7 experience is a potential drawback, Brown believes that’s balanced by the Kings’ knowledge of how heavy a toll they must pay to succeed in the playoffs.
“After what we did last year, I always say you don’t really know what you’re playing for until you’ve won it,” Brown said. “So my perspective on playoffs this year has been completely different from my perspective on playoffs in previous years because I don’t think I fully understood what I was playing for until we put ourselves over the top.
“And that’s kind of the same way with losing. It’s hard to understand what it takes to win until you lose.”
Anze Kopitar couldn’t play in that 2011 playoff series because he was recovering from a terrible ankle injury that required surgery. That was almost worse than being on the ice.
“I think watching was even harder because you can’t do a whole lot to help the team except be in there and try and lift the spirits up after a tough loss,” he said.
Center Colin Fraser won the Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010 and with the Kings last spring, stopping in between to play for the non-playoff Edmonton Oilers. He remembers the last time he was on the wrong side of the series-ending handshake line, after a 2-1 overtime loss by Chicago to the Detroit Red Wings in 2009.
“It didn’t feel good, especially being in the conference finals. We were kind of within a whisker of getting to the finals,” Fraser said.
“It was a tight game. ... Playoffs, there’s not a lot of room out there. You can flip a coin sometimes as to who’s going to win. It’s a fine line and we’ve got to find a way to get on the good side of that line.”
How do the Kings get on that good side? There are no secrets, just truisms. Start strong. Stay out of the penalty box. Pay attention to small details that can suddenly take on huge significance. Get the matchups they want, a task made easier by being the home team.
What will happen is anyone’s guess. What must happen is simple.
“We want to make sure we leave everything out there,” Kopitar said, “and give ourselves the best chance to win.”
The alternative is feeling that sickening, sinking sensation they’ve avoided for so long.