LOS ANGELES -- The ads started popping up in local newspapers during the postseason, before the Los Angeles Kings had even advanced to their third consecutive Western Conference finals or were three wins away from claiming their second Stanley Cup in three years.
There’s no doubt that our definition of a dynasty has changed over the years. No one will mistake the Kings’ current three-year run -- whose latest installment, Game 2 against the New York Rangers, is slated for Saturday night at Staples -- with the Edmonton Oilers winning five titles in seven years in the mid- to late 1980s, the New York Islanders winning four straight in the early '80s or the Montreal Canadiens winning 16 titles during the 1950s, '60s and '70s. But when you look at the NHL since 1990, the Kings’ current three-year run will hold up well if they go on to win the Stanley Cup.
Only the Pittsburgh Penguins (1991 and 1992) and the Detroit Red Wings (1997 and 1998) have won two Stanley Cups in three years, with both winning back-to-back titles. The Red Wings (2007-09) were the last team to play in three consecutive conference finals.
What makes the Kings’ run so unique, however, is that during the regular season, they look far from a team on the verge of a dynasty. The Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2012 as a No. 8 seed, becoming the first 8-seed in North American professional sports to win a championship. In fact, they needed a win in the final game of the regular season just to secure the last seed before going on to become just the second team to eliminate the first, second and third seeds in the same postseason.
Last year, the Kings advanced to the conference finals as the fifth seed in the West after a lockout-shortened season. And this season, the Kings are back in the Stanley Cup finals as the sixth seed after becoming the first team to advance to the finals after winning three consecutive Game 7s, all on the road.
If the Kings win the Stanley Cup this season, the 2012 and 2014 teams would be the only Stanley Cup champions seeded lower than fifth to win the trophy and just the third team to win despite finishing lower than second in its division. The first was the 1993 Canadiens, who finished third in the Adams Division before going on to beat the Kings in the Cup finals.
As a franchise, the Kings have never won the Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team with the most points in the regular season, and their only division title came in 1991, when they were eliminated in the second round. Each one of the Kings’ trips to the Stanley Cup finals has come after they finished third in their division or sixth or lower in their conference.
These Kings' style of hockey lends itself to classic underdog stories, storybook road victories and historic postseason success -- but not necessarily a lot of regular-season banners Kings players would just as soon do without.
“It's funny,” Brown said. “When you look at Staples, we don't have banners all the way across, but we have the banner we want. We're in the process or in search of that next banner.”
There have been championship teams in the past notorious for the ability to flip a switch from the regular season to the postseason, the same team that sleepwalked during stretches, becoming almost unrecognizable. But even those outfits find a way to finish in the top four or five in a conference going into the postseason. It’s almost as if being a low seed and an underdog is part of the Kings’ blueprint for success come playoff time.
“Not necessarily a blueprint,” said Brown, a forward in his 10th season in Los Angeles. “But I think there's a mentality that goes with it. You know, do you want to be a division champion or a Stanley Cup champion? There's a mentality to that. The way we play the game, it's a tough game to play. There's teams that get far more points than us during the regular season. But when it comes to playoff time, our type of style, our type of game we play, the players that we have, we become a really hard team to beat four times in seven games.”
It’s not as if the Kings begin the season with aspirations of finishing third in their division or sixth or worse in the conference. That’s just how it plays out.
“Our goal is to win the division, but it didn’t happen,” forward Justin Williams said. “We’re built better for the playoffs. We’re a playoff-built team who's got another gear and [is] able to find that extra bit that you need come playoff time. It’s certainly not something you can just turn on and turn off. You slowly need to be playing better. The hardest part of the playoffs is getting in. It’s always hard. We’re able to find a little more every time we get in.”
This season, the Kings were ranked 26th in the NHL in goals per game. In 2011-12, they ranked 29th. That’s not just bad, it's bottom-five-in-the-league bad. On the flip side, the Kings allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season and were second in 2011-12. It speaks to the defensive mindset the Kings have that works so well come playoff time, when you need to win 16 games, but doesn’t always equate over the course of an 82-game regular season, when it’s harder to grind out wins for six months.
“I think we understand as a group the way we need to play,” Brown said. “It’s not an easy thing to do for 82 games, but we understand it’s about the journey. We’re built for playoff hockey. Every trade deadline and every draft, they talk about how we need to get rid of this guy and that guy, but a big part of our success is that we’ve been together and we understand the type of team we are. It might not be 120-point-regular-season team, but we’ve been playing into June three years in a row, and I don’t think there’s any other team in the league that can say they’ve done that. It’s not easy, but when you want to win, you’ll do what it takes.”
The style of hockey Darryl Sutter coaches and the kind of players general manager Dean Lombardi acquires are geared toward a physical brand of hockey, predicated on puck possession and low-scoring games. It’s a style that obviously works well this time of year, but the Kings are almost resigned to the fact that it might not win them a Presidents' Trophy or even a Pacific Division title -- which is just fine with them if they are able to win another Stanley Cup.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of pacing ourselves,” Brown said. “We play a hard, physical style, and at the end of the day, 82 games are a lot of games, and when you have to play a certain way to be successful, it’s not an easy thing. There’s going to be nights when you just don’t have it, collectively and individually. Whereas if we were a high-skilled, rush team with a lot of goal-scoring, you can find ways to win when one guy has a great game. I think that’s what maybe costs us a couple points here and there in the regular season. We might be tired collectively, and we don’t rely on one guy to climb us out of it. It’s also the strength this time of year, where we don’t have that one guy to lean on too heavily. We win with different guys stepping up at different times. That’s what a team’s about.”
The Kings began this historic postseason run with an historic comeback over the San Jose Sharks, becoming just the fourth NHL team to overcome a 3-0 series deficit to eliminate their division rivals. After the Kings’ victory in Game 7, a pocket of Kings fans began chanting, “Where’s your banner?” at exiting Sharks fans. The Sharks actually have plenty of banners. They have won six division titles and one Presidents' Trophy since 2002, but they would surely trade them all for the banner the Kings raised in 2012 and the one they hope to raise later this year.
“We go into buildings where there are a lot of banners for divisions and conferences and other things, but ultimately it comes down to one banner which is the most important,” Kopitar, in his eighth season with the Kings, said. “We’ve managed to come up once as an eighth seed. Our style of play is hard to maintain for 82 games, but it seems that every time the playoffs come around, we’re in full stride and ready to go -- and that’s really the most important thing anyway.”