Los Angeles Kings clear first hurdle in Stanley Cup defense
LOS ANGELES (AP) When the Los Angeles Kings stunned top-seeded Vancouver to win their first-round playoff series a year ago, they had to acknowledge the importance of their long-suffering franchise's first postseason advancement in 11 years.
The Kings' standards for celebration have risen a bit in the past year.
A day after Los Angeles earned its fourth straight one-goal victory to finish off the tough St. Louis Blues on Friday night, the defending Stanley Cup champions barely reacted to an achievement that would have been groundbreaking just a year ago.
The Kings already are imagining another long playoff run built around Jonathan Quick's goaltending, a sturdy defense and four talented lines on a roster stacked with players eager to win multiple rings.
"It seems like there's a sense of comfort when you're within our dressing room and it's just the players in there," Kings forward Justin Williams said Saturday.
"You look around and you know what everyone's capable of, and you know that come crunch time, they're going to get it done for you. I don't have any doubt in my mind that that's the case when other players look around the room as well. That confidence is something that we've earned, and something that we've been through. We're feeling we can beat anybody."
Los Angeles is the first NHL champion to get out of the first round in three years, and the Kings are focused on becoming the NHL's first repeat Stanley Cup winner since 1998.
Postseason consistency is difficult in hockey, with its exhausting seven-game series and remarkably even matchups often ending on a bad bounce or missed save in overtime, but the Kings believe their defense and physical play are a formula for repeat success.
Yet the Kings have plenty to improve on in the next few days. They leaned heavily on Quick and his .944 save percentage against St. Louis after managing just 12 goals in six games, including just one apiece from 2012 playoff scoring co-leaders Anze Kopitar and captain Dustin Brown.
"I think we won the series without playing our best hockey," said Williams, a two-time Stanley Cup winner. "That's obviously a positive, especially beating a great team like St. Louis. I just think there's some things that we can do a lot better.
"I think our top line - myself, Kopi and Brownie - needs to be better moving forward for us to keep advancing in these playoffs. We got by, by playing great defensively and scoring timely goals, but sometimes that can only take you so far. We need everybody on top of their game. That's what we had last year, and that's what we're going to need."
The Kings won't know the identity of their second-round opponent until Anaheim and Detroit finish their series in Orange County on Sunday night.
If the Ducks win, Southern California's two NHL teams will meet in the postseason for the first time - but given the Ducks' struggles with the Red Wings, nobody in the Southland is thinking much about a Freeway Faceoff until Game 7 is finished.
"If we ended up playing the Ducks, it would be great for hockey in Southern California," said Dustin Penner, who won the Stanley Cup in Anaheim and Los Angeles.
"Like any other person you ask in this situation, it doesn't really matter who we face, because we have no control over it. We're just going to do what we have to do to prepare ourselves for that series."
If Detroit beats the Ducks, the Kings still get an all-California matchup against the San Jose Sharks - a 45-minute flight north instead of a 45-minute bus ride to Anaheim.
Either series will provide travel relief for the Kings, who are used to the Western Conference's grinding long-distance flights.
"You can't pick one, because whoever you pick, you're going to play the other one," Quick said. "We'll just wait and see."
The Kings are the first team in NHL history to win five straight playoff series despite playing Game 1 on the road.
The eighth-seeded Kings never had home-ice advantage last season, and the fourth-seeded Blues won this series' first two games at home before Los Angeles took the next four.
The Kings will actually have home-ice advantage if they face the sixth-seeded Sharks, and it's been big lately: Los Angeles has won 10 straight games at Staples Center, going unbeaten in the sold-out arena since March.
Only four banners hang in the rafters for team achievements, but the black Stanley Cup banner is looming large in the postseason.
"I'm not sure if, four or five years ago, people shuddered that they had to come to the Staples Center to play," Williams said. "I don't think there was that feeling when you're with another team. But I think over the last little while, we've made it a tough place to play, and that just doesn't include us. That includes the fans, too. The fans have done an awesome job of getting us revved up, especially for playoff games."