It was so easy to want to lose faith in the Los Angeles Kings all season long. Words such as "underachievers", "disappointments" and "#$%@!$%" were applied to them during a regular season that saw the coach get fired and the captain nearly traded.
It was shaping up as just another year to joke at the Kings' expense; "Hey, we would say 'break out the golf clubs', but you guys probably already have them in the trunks of your convertibles."
The Kings beep-beep-beeped their way into the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, losing back-to-back games against San Jose to close out the regular season. Their 194 goals were the fewest of any of the 16 playoff teams. There was no reason to believe the postseason would be anything more than a "thanks for coming" swift kick in the pants from the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks. That would be that for another year in LA.
Well, so much for that.
Your formerly beleaguered and harangued Kings are one win away from the Western Conference finals after Thursday's 4-2 win in Game 3 of their semifinal series with the St. Louis Blues. Drew Doughty's goal and two assists, combined with the continued yeoman work by Jonathan Quick in net, got them the win. The few who kept the faith in the Kings are basking in the harvest right now. One more win, and Los Angeles will have its first non-NBA team reach a conference finals since Wayne Gretzky and the "Hockeywood" team did it in 1993.
The Staples Center rocked with noise when the final horn sounded, such a strange occurrence in May with ice covering the floor. The area around the building is called "LA Live", but this time of year usually means "LA Dead" when it comes to the hockey team.
But when the Kings got into the playoffs -- backed in that is -- the same rule applied to them as any other team: have a hot goalie and a couple of guys who suddenly develop hot sticks, and you can win the damn thing.
Quick, a Vezina Trophy finalist and probably the Conn Smythe favorite, was his usual self on Thursday night. He allowed two Chris Stewart goals, the first of which was an uncharacteristic short-side backhander, but was flawless otherwise while making 18 saves -- nine in the third period when the Blues made a desperate push after entering it down 3-1.
When Stewart scored his second of the night at 4:35 of the third, the Blues pushed even harder during their next couple of shifts. Alex Steen nearly tied it, but lost control of the puck in front and Slava Voynov, the Kings' Russian rookie defenseman, continued his fine play by clearing it out of harm's way. Doughty, who like many Kings struggled through a wildly inconsistent regular season, put a hard shot through the five-hole of Blues goalie Brian Elliott at 8:12 for the insurance that Quick wouldn't need. The Blues totally wilted from there.
For the first time all season, the Blues have now lost three straight games in regulation. Not a good time for this to happen to the No. 2 seed. Their coach, Ken Hitchcock, let some frustration out during a second-period interview with NBC Sports' Brian Hayward on the bench, with his team down 3-1 late. Hayward tried to make Hitchcock feel better with a lead-in question about why his team might have been playing just a bit better in the previous two minutes.
"Well, we're keepin' the damn game 5-on-5," Hitchcock said. "We've taken some silly penalties. We're playin' hard, but that gives them all the momentum. If we can just keep it 5-on-5, we can get back in the game. We end up playing our best players killing penalties (and) got no energy to go back on the attack."
Indeed, the Blues were assessed five of the game's first six minor penalties. Not until Matt Greene was cited for delay of game, at 18:33 of the second, did they get their one and only power play.
The Blues just haven't gotten enough from their top forwards Steen, David Backes, Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie. It also seems apparent that skilled two-way defenseman Alex Pietrangelo may still be bothered after his Game 1 collision and possible concussion from L.A.'s Dwight King who, to rub it in that much more, scored the game's biggest goal -- 40 seconds after Stewart tied it 1-1 in the second.
Coming down the right side with Pietrangelo chasing, King beat Elliott with a far-post shot. Mike Richards would add a power-play goal at 10:29 -- beating Elliott with the same short-side corner shot he beat Roberto Luongo with in the opening series against the Canucks.
The sold-out crowd of 18,362 showered their team with hosannas when the clock ticked to all zeros. The Kings look like they're going to the final four.
Never a doubt, right?