Kings' window to win is now wide open
TORONTO -- Dustin Brown flew into the zone on the forecheck, stripped the puck from Toronto forward Wayne Primeau and quickly fed an all-alone Jarret Stoll for a goal in yet another Los Angeles Kings victory Tuesday night.
It might not have been too flashy, but it's how the Kings have found their stride this season.
Wave after wave, the Kings pounded the Maple Leafs in the offensive zone. On Tuesday, winger Ryan Smyth skated with Stoll and Brown, and the line produced three goals and enough sandpaper to open a hardware store. The top line had flashy center Anze Kopitar between Brad Richardson and Wayne Simmonds; another line had Michal Handzus between Alexander Frolov and Scott Parse. It was pressure, pressure, pressure on the Leafs' defense all night long.
"When we get the puck in deep, we're a tough team to play against when we're down low and cycling and taking the puck to the net," Smyth said. "And all four lines can do it."
"We're starting to get to the point where we just believe in sticking to the system," Kings veteran blueliner Sean O'Donnell said. "Before, it used to be that we played our best game and maybe the other team had a game off. Now, we feel like if we play our best game, we can beat anybody on any given night. We are beginning to really believe that."
The Kings are surging again, having won five of six games following a bit of a midseason tailspin that suddenly saw the young and talented club on the playoff bubble just two weeks ago. It was a wake-up call and a great pressure point for a team that expects to make the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Wins followed over Anaheim, Boston, Buffalo, Detroit and Toronto, with the one loss against San Jose on Jan. 19.
"I love the way the situation started to unfold, where you have to respond to pressure," said veteran coach Terry Murray, who has been masterful in bringing along the youthful core of this team. "It's good for our team; it's good for the growth of the young guys on our hockey club to have to go through it. The response has been good, and the young guys were a big part of that, logging important minutes.
"To have the young guys go through it, live it and come out the other side the right way, for personal growth it's tremendous."
On the morning of Dec. 13, the Kings gave their fans a tease of what hopefully is to come over the next few seasons: The club sat atop the Western Conference standings. The stay was brief (one day), and the Kings responded to their newfound rarified air by going 4-8-0 and falling to eighth.
That's OK, GM Dean Lombardi said.
"When we got to first place and then fell a little, you could just see the kids squeezing the sticks and pressing a little," Lombardi told ESPN.com this week. "This is all part of becoming a top team, dealing with expectations and pressure. If you don't deal with that, you'll never learn how to be a good team. I love how the room never went sour, even when we had a little rough ride and losing a lot of one-goal games. I never saw them quit on themselves. There's a lot of character in that room, and this is a great growth period for them."
The Kings' recent run has elevated them back to sixth in the West, just two points out of fifth and three out of fourth. With the March 3 trade deadline approaching, Lombardi recently made an important decision. He's throwing his rising squad a bone; he'll be a buyer.
"What they've shown us, the way they've committed themselves, the way they've battled, yes, I do think that we are actively looking to improve this team," Lombardi said. "We're going to look at adding the right piece, but it's got to be the right piece at a number that works with the big pie here."
Lombardi would not discuss names, of course, but we know he'll be a player in the Ilya Kovalchuk sweepstakes. The GM has the cap room and the green light from ownership to go for this kind of big-name addition. Someone for the blue line is also on the wish list.
But neither move will happen if the cost is too prohibitive. For example, if the Thrashers demand that second-year winger Wayne Simmonds be part of the deal for Kovalchuk, forget about it. Lombardi has done a superb job in this rebuild, not only with his NHL roster, but also with stockpiling prospects in the Kings' system. He's willing to move picks or prospects, no question.
The window to win has just opened after three patient seasons of rebuilding. It's an exciting time.
"L.A. has struggled to make the playoffs for many years now, and I think the staff and everyone is kind of sick of it," said sophomore stud blueliner Drew Doughty, the biggest reason for the Kings' rise. "We have the team to make it this year."
Jonathan Quick has been dynamite in goal, and fellow netminder Jonathan Bernier is ripping it up in the AHL. The Kings are set in goal. "We've got an excellent goaltender in Quickie, which has given us a chance every night," Smyth said.
Kopitar also is a big part of the Kings' young core. The talented Slovenian has been through the lean times. Now, he's licking his chops as his first playoff game might finally materialize.
"It's a breakthrough year for us," Kopitar said. "There was more pressure put on us, but that's OK. Three years was enough. When you're out of contention for a playoff spot by the end of January, it's boring for the older guys on the team; maybe not for me because I was still busy trying to prove myself. But now, we've matured a lot and grown as a team. We've played good hockey, but we just need to be more consistent."
The Kings flirted with a playoff spot last season before crumbling down the stretch. They weren't ready and they knew it. They learned from that, said Brown, the team's impressive young captain.
"I think the one difference is that, last year, we hoped to win a game. This year, we're going into a game knowing we're going to win," Brown said. "When you have that kind of confidence and belief system, not just from one or two guys but from 15 to 20 guys, that's when you can see success."
That's the key, Smyth said, truly believing it.
"We believe in this locker room," said Smyth. "When you believe something, it starts to trickle through your lineup. It gives us confidence to progress. Even though we are young, there's some great experience on this team to help out, as well."
Smyth and Rob Scuderi were key offseason additions, filling important holes on and off the ice. The blend is just right.
"We're just a little bit deeper, and the young guys are a year older," said O'Donnell, another important veteran voice. "We had some success last year, but couldn't sustain it. Now we're starting to realize we're a good team, and we're getting more and more confident."
That confidence was on full display this past Saturday night in Detroit. With a playoff-like game in a rink where the Kings never win, Los Angeles fell behind 2-0 before rallying for a 3-2 win in a game the veteran Wings wanted just as badly as they try to climb out of the playoff bubble. It was one of those games that helped the Kings realize what they could achieve.
"We got behind, but we weren't going to be denied," Smyth said. "The relentlessness, the discipline in our play, that showed in that game, and that win gave us a boost of confidence."
The plan is working. The kids are coming of age. The veterans are re-energized. The Kings are possibly playoff bound for the first time in eight years.
"When we go back a month or so ago [when the Kings were briefly first], it was ahead of the curve from what it was realistically supposed to be," Murray said. "But I also want to keep the bar very high for these guys. I don't know what the top is going to be with this group. It looks good."
Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.