LOS ANGELES, Calif. - The Los Angeles Kings' road toward a second straight Stanley Cup title has been longer, steeper and a whole lot bumpier than last season's journey.
The champs are still right on course at the halfway point of the trip.
After rocketing through the first two post-season rounds in just nine games last season, the Kings have needed 13 strenuous games to reach their second straight Western Conference finals this spring. Their playoff fate rested on a tense Game 7 with the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday night, and they coolly won 2-1 on two goals by Justin Williams and phenomenal goaltending from Jonathan Quick.
The Kings all predicted their repeat bid would be more difficult. They're still getting it done with grit they gathered during last season's breakthrough for the franchise's first title.
"It's taken a lot to get to this point," Kings centre Mike Richards said Wednesday. "Two grinding, grueling, tough, hard-hitting series. Obviously, it's nice to move on, and nice to get a day to relax."
Los Angeles will face top-seeded Chicago in the Western Conference finals starting Saturday, and the high-powered Blackhawks should provide a significant contrast with St. Louis and San Jose. The Kings' first two playoff opponents played punishing, hard-nosed games, forcing Los Angeles to grind out victories with even more of their usual toughness—and four weeks of that style of play can take a toll, even on the playoff-tested Kings.
"It's been a lot more wear and tear, more physical this year," forward Dustin Penner said. "But we've been able to overcome it thus far, and we're only halfway done."
The Kings, just 1-5 on the road in the post-season after winning their first 10 last year, will begin the conference finals with back-to-back games at United Center this weekend. Los Angeles lost two of three to Chicago in the regular season, including a 5-2 defeat on opening night that spoiled the Kings' banner-raising ceremony at Staples Center and started the Blackhawks' surge to the Presidents' Trophy.
"You don't get to the final four by luck," Penner said before Chicago's overtime victory in Game 7. "It's not going to be easy, and we have no preference in the matter."
Los Angeles and Chicago haven't met in the post-season since 1974.
The Kings are the first defending Stanley Cup champions to make it out of the second round since Detroit made consecutive appearances in the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and 2009. The NHL hasn't had a repeat champion since the Red Wings in 1998, with the last 13 straight winners failing to defend.
Yet each playoff series victory suggests coach Darryl Sutter's team is capable of even more unprecedented feats. The Kings have won six playoff series in the last two years—uncharted territory for a Second Six franchise that had never won more than three series in any two-season span in its 46 years of existence.
The Kings kept together nearly the entire core of last season's champions for this run, with defenceman Robyn Regehr the only significant veteran addition to the roster that carved up every opponent during that 16-4 playoff run. Their familiarity has led to an improved power play, easier transitions during injury absences, and a businesslike dressing room that also knows how to keep things fun.
"The mark of a good team and good players is finding a way to win," Penner said. "Obviously, it's a lot different than going up 3-0 (in every series) last year, starting as the road team. I think we would have been fooling ourselves to think that in the first two series this year, we could do what we did last year. It would have been nice, but every playoff poses different challenges, and it's up to the players and team to rise to those challenges. We've been able to do that so far."
The Kings' achievements are even more impressive in the context of the NHL's compressed season, thanks to the lockout. With fewer days off and more games ever since January, Los Angeles is still humming.
"It's grinding at the best of times, and then you throw another game in a week where you have no down time," Richards said. "You're either getting ready for a game, or just played a game and got to get right back and get re-energized, regrouped for the next game."
Perhaps that's one reason scoring has been tougher for the Kings, who are averaging just two goals per game in the post-season. They also can't surprise anybody this spring, as they probably did last season as an eighth seed, and they've only won one road playoff game so far.
They've still kept winning in front of Quick, who has followed up his Conn Smythe Trophy performance in 2012 with more of the same—and maybe even better. The goalie whose $58 million contract extension doesn't even kick in until next season just might be hockey's best big-game netminder after holding St. Louis and San Jose to 20 combined goals—just 14 at even strength—in 13 games.
"That's Quickie," Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said. "He won the Conn Smythe last year, and I was saying to a couple of guys yesterday, 'He makes better saves than I think he did all playoff run last year.' He's just been standing on his head for us, and it's great to have him do that, but I think we've got to back him up a little more. He's been having to make too many big saves."
The Kings could get more good news in the next few days if centre Jarret Stoll is cleared to return. The faceoff specialist and top penalty-killer has missed the last six games after getting an apparent concussion from an illegal hit by San Jose's Raffi Torres in the second-round series opener.
Stoll has been skating after the Kings' last few practices, and Staples Center's fans chanted his name during Game 7 while he watched from the press box.
"We missed him, obviously, a lot," Richards said. "Hopefully getting him back here at some point will be a big boost when we can play with a full roster."