Kings have learned how to win
BOSTON -- As Anze Kopitar sat in front of his locker and took off his pads, he couldn't put them in his equipment bag fast enough and get on the first team bus out of TD Garden.
The Kings had no business beating the Bruins on Saturday night, a 3-2 shootout win that gave them their fifth straight victory and continued the Bruins on their seven-game slide, but they did. It shouldn't be a surprise at this point for a team that seems to find new ways to win every night, but Kopitar still felt as if he were taking a ski mask off instead of his helmet afterward.
"Not a full robbery," Kopitar said. "But it was still a steal."
The fact is playoff teams find ways to steal games like this. Playoff teams find ways to win on the road when they're behind in the third period. And playoff teams find ways to win even when they are not playing their best. After an eight-year postseason drought, the Kings have finally learned what it's like to be a playoff team.
This is where playoff teams are built -- in Boston's Back Bay, on the shores of Lake Ontario and the streets of Detroit in the cold of January. The upstart Kings have knocked off half of the NHL's "Original Six" on the road in the past week and in the process have moved up to fifth place in the Western Conference.
Most of the Kings' young players, of course, have no clue how a playoff team is built. The closest most of them have come to the postseason is watching it on TV or driving to Anaheim to watch the Ducks. But for the first time in most of their careers they are playing meaningful games into February and beyond.
"It's a great feeling. I've never been in this position before in my four years," Kopitar said. "It's a lot more exciting than in previous years and we're up to the challenge. Everyone realizes that and we're playing good hockey with a lot of energy and I like our chances."
It's hard not to like the Kings' chances right now. They have won a season-high five straight games, their longest streak since 2006, and have won six consecutive road games, second only to the club record of eight set 35 years ago.
While key players such as Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Alexander Frolov have no idea what it's like to play meaningful games in the second half of the season, veterans such as Sean O'Donnell, who won a Stanley Cup with the Anaheim Ducks, and Rob Scuderi, who won last season with the Pittsburgh Penguins, are quick to point out that this is a new team.
"There's only a handful of players that have been here the past couple years," O'Donnell said. "The rest of us are new and we don't know any better. The Kings haven't had a lot of success the past few years but that doesn't mean that individually we haven't had success at other places. We bring some of that experience here with us. We don't have anyone who's been here for the past eight or nine years and has been worn down by this. We have a bunch of young guys with energy from different places and we're trying to turn this thing around."
The Kings have been able to turn their season -- and the postseason fortunes of the franchise -- around by keeping things simple and coming up big when it matters. The Kings have won eight of their last nine shootouts this season and are 2-0 in games decided in the five-minute extra session and 8-3 in games that are decided via shootout. It's that gut-it-out style that has propelled the Kings to an 18-10-1 record on the road, which they'd like to duplicate at home after going 3-4 during their seven-game homestand before going on the road.
"Sometimes with a young team you feel like you're supposed to play a certain way at home and entertain the fans and out here we're just doing what we do," O'Donnell said. "We're not trying to make it an exciting game; we're just trying to win. We sit around, get the first goal and go from there."
Before the season began, Brown, the Kings' captain who has been with the team since 2003 (and endured the franchise's postseason drought the longest), and Matt Greene contacted every player on the team and told them to come to Los Angeles and train for a month before training camp began. It wasn't a mandatory meeting so much as a meeting to see how many players were actually committed to playing for something more than a paycheck after New Year's Day.
Not only did the entire team come together (Kopitar flew from Slovenia to join his teammates), but they began to bond on and off the ice. Before the coaching staff even got to see the group for training camp they were already becoming a team in July.
"That's when I knew this was going to be a special team," Kings coach Terry Murray said. "They understood that two points in the first and second game are just as valuable as they are right now. When I saw them come together like that and guys flying from all over to train with their teammates, that's when I knew this team would come together."
Their meeting seven months ago is still paying dividends today as the players who bought into each other before the start of camp are continuing to buy into Murray's system and believing that if they stick with it and with each other they'll find a way to win even if that means stealing a game here and there.
"The biggest difference between last year and this year is that we believe if we play our game we can beat any team on any night," O'Donnell said. "When you have that kind of confidence and start seeing positive results anything is possible."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.