All you needed for visual proof of the complete and total transformation of the Los Angeles Kings during the past 30 days was to watch the final two minutes of their Game 4 sweep of the St. Louis Blues on Sunday afternoon.
A month ago, Dustin Penner was just another name to flog in the mostly dreary springtime history of this franchise. But there was "Pancake Penner" working like a mule in the Blues' end zone, keeping a loose puck tied up in his skates, using his wide body to protect the precious rubber from the desperate sticks of opposing players who were still hopeful of scoring the tying goal in a 2-1 game.
Kings fans roared with approval, waving little white flags that for the first time in nearly 20 years did not signify springtime surrender. Penner's linemates Dwight King and Trevor Lewis helped rag the puck some more. Instead of having nearly two minutes to get that tying goal, the Blues were down to about one by the time the unheralded Kings trio was through.
And that is just the kind of thing that wins playoff games, and one big example of why the Kings -- the Kings -- are going on to their first conference final series since some guy named Gretzky played for them in 1993. The Kings have become only the third No. 8 seed to advance to a conference final, and the first since the 1-8 format went into effect in 1994 to beat the Nos. 1 and 2 in the same playoff year.
Somewhere during this past month, the Kings decided to be everything they weren't in a regular season for which the most apt adjective might be "underwhelming." They have become a team that forechecks, backchecks and, thanks to that effort, will cash bigger collective playoff paychecks.
The aforementioned Penner-King-Lewis minute is Exhibit A for the forecheck. Exhibit A for the backcheck came with about nine minutes left in the third period, with the Kings still holding on to a skinny one-goal lead. Captain Dustin Brown had used Blues defender Alex Pietrangelo as a screen in the first period for what would prove to be the game-winning goal against netminder Brian Elliott.
Pietrangelo looked like he had the game tied when a rare rebound allowed by brilliant Kings goalie Jonathan Quick emerged in the blue paint after a big Blues break-in attempt. Just as Pietrangelo was about to deposit the biscuit in the basket, however, Anze Kopitar came roaring back on D. He got to the loose puck just a hair before Pietrangelo, shuffling it out of harm's way.
That, too, is just the kind of thing that wins playoff games.
Of the four games in the series, this might have been the poorest one that the Kings played. They were outshot 24-19 and not very good on the power play (0-for-5). The Blues had the better scoring chances, Pietrangelo's bid heading the list. But the Kings won anyway because:
• Quick was just a lot better than Elliott in this series, stopping 94 percent of the shots he faced overall.
• L.A.'s top players were a lot better than the Blues' top players, with Brown's terrific shot and use of Pietrangelo -- the Blues' best defenseman -- the biggest example, not to mention the quality of play by Kopitar, Mike Richards and Drew Doughty in the series.
• The Blues showed all the discipline of a rebellious teenager in this series. Time and again, they killed themselves with stupid penalties, especially in Game 4.
Biggest case in point: At the 4:33 mark of the third, the Blues were set to go on the power play after Brown was caught slashing Pietrangelo. They'd been playing very well to that point in the period, and coach Ken Hitchcock had just told NBC analyst Brian Hayward that he loved his team's chances of getting the tying goal.
And then it came: a boarding penalty on Matt D'Agostini. Perhaps taking umbrage at the rough play on Pietrangelo away from the puck, D'Agostini foolishly charged Kings defenseman Alec Martinez, driving him face-first into the end-zone glass behind Quick.
The legendary Scotty Bowman used to tell me that offensive zone penalties were the surest reason for him to cut ice time for his players. This one by D'Agostini surely would have drawn his wrath, and no doubt it didn't make Hitchcock happy. The Blues saw their gathering Big Mo turned into No Mo for several minutes. Then, at the eight-minute mark of the third, Scott Nichol put left team short-handed for four minutes with an errant high stick to the face of Jordan Nolan, who'd scored the Kings' first goal and played a terrific depth-line game for coach Darryl Sutter.
St. Louis would keep it a 2-1 game with some good PK work, and the match could have still turned out well for them in the end, as they were the better team at even strength for most of the third. But Quick, Kopitar, Pancake Penner and the rest of the Kings held them off, leading to Brown's empty-net goal with 26 seconds left.
Hitchcock bemoaned his team's "silly penalties" throughout the series, but in the end he was gracious to the victors. "LA plays the way you have to play to win the Cup now. They play the game the right way," he told reporters.
Let's hear it for the coaching of Sutter, too. He always seemed to have the right players on the ice against Blues forwards such as David Backes, Patrik Berglund and Andy McDonald. Kopitar did superb work on the defensive side, and Sutter's use of his energy lines -- such as Penner, King and Lewis -- helped grind the Blues' defense down as the series went along. It should be noted, though, that the St. Louis D wasn't at full strength. Pietrangelo gamely played on after a possible concussion in Game 1, but never seemed right after that.
It should also be noted that Elliott's Cinderella story finished with a lousy last chapter. After a regular-season and first round that had hockey pundits shaking their heads in wonder at its excellence, Elliott had them saying, "Told you so" by the end of this series. He just stopped making the kinds of big saves he had to make.
At the other end, Quick was sick. But he wants more. "It means nothing unless we win," he told NBC, presumably meaning the Stanley Cup. "I tell you, (St. Louis) worked hard all four games. It was a lot closer than a four-game sweep."
About Kopitar's backcheck/paycheck third-period moment, Quick said: "It's just sacrifice, diggin' in. He came back, and our forwards have been great all year getting back in the D zone."
Kings captain Brown told NBC as well that time off until the next series -- against either Phoenix or Nashville, possibly not for another week -- could help his squad a lot. "Maybe we can get away mentally for a couple days," he said.
But be careful what you wish for. The Blues had some time off after their first-round win over San Jose and seemed to lose some edge after that. The same thing has been happening in the East with Philadelphia struggling against New Jersey.
The way the Kings are playing, you'd think they would want to get back on the ice as soon as possible. But Brown can be forgiven. Everyone wants to feel like a king for a day or three.