LOS ANGELES – The names on the back of the jerseys haven't changed, but everything about the Los Angeles Kings' journey this postseason is different.
Perhaps the only similarity between both trips so far is that for the second year in a row the Kings are headed back to the Western Conference finals. And, really, that's the only thing that matters anyway.
Despite having little roster turnover from the team that won the Stanley Cup last season, the Kings don't exactly resemble the team that steamrolled its way to a 3-0 lead in every series through the playoffs last year. But there is more than one way to become a championship team.
Nothing highlighted the difference more than their grueling seven-game series against the San Jose Sharks, which culminated in a not-so-surprisingly grueling 2-1 win in Game 7 on Tuesday.
Last season, the Kings swept the St. Louis Blues to advance to the conference finals, and each game in that series was decided by at least two goals. This season, the Kings had to come back from a 2-0 hole against St. Louis in the first round and then win their first Game 7 in 20 years to get to the semifinals. In fact, the Kings hadn't even played in a Game 7 in more than a decade before Tuesday night.
"It's been a lot different," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "We've played 13 games so far. We played 20 games total last year. In retrospect, it was easy last year. When you're going through it, it's not, but when you look back on it, it is. We've had to grind games out here."
Every team is inherently different from one season to the next, and this year's Kings are teaching us that so, too, is every journey to the Stanley Cup.
Most of the key players on this Kings squad are the same ones who lifted the Stanley Cup last season. In fact, all but one player from last season's team was with the Kings when the season started this year, something a defending champion hasn't done since the 1983 New York Islanders returned 23 of 24 players from their championship team.
That kind of continuity is great but doesn't promise anything. Anyone who has ever won a Stanley Cup will tell you the stars have to align just right to win 16 games during the playoffs. Players have to get hot at the right time, get lucky at key times and stay healthy the entire time. Simply duplicating last season's team photo doesn't guarantee all of those things will happen again.
"It's a completely different year, but at the same time our team is very similar," Brown said. "We can win in a lot of different ways. Maybe with the exception of Quickie [goaltender Jonathan Quick] every single night, we have different guys stepping up, and that's what's great about our team. It's a sign of what a team is all about."
Quick has been the biggest constant on the ice this season for the Kings from last year's magical run. Quick is once again the best goaltender in the postseason, leading the league in goals-against average (1.50), save percentage (.948), shutouts (three) and wins (eight). It could easily be argued that he's playing better than he did last season despite the Kings already losing more games (five) than they did all of last postseason (four). That's mainly because the Kings are 1-11 in their past 12 road games and have scored just one goal in all but one postseason road game this year. Last year, they won a record 10 straight on the road and scored at least two goals in all but one road game. They scored at least four goals in six of those road wins.
"Our hero is the goaltender down there," said Kings forward Justin Williams, who scored two goals Tuesday. "Quickie has been amazing."
Quick's heroics aside, the Kings have had to find new ways to win this postseason as they try to fill some holes left by key players who were instrumental in last year's run.
Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell were two of the team's key defenseman last season; Mitchell has been out all season, while Greene played only five games in the regular season and recently returned to the lineup. Jarret Stoll, the Kings' best penalty-killer, was knocked out of the San Jose series and perhaps longer after getting hit in the head by Sharks left wing Raffi Torres. You also have healthy scratches such as Alec Martinez and Jordan Nolan, who were key players last postseason but have fallen out of favor this postseason.
Players such as Tyler Toffoli, Jake Muzzin and Robyn Regehr have more than adequately filled the holes the team has had. Kyle Clifford, who missed all but one playoff games last season, and Brad Richardson, who was used sparingly, have stepped up as well. So as much as this team is similar to last season's when you look at the roster, there are some key differences when it takes the ice. The similarities, regardless of the differences, are a big reason the Kings are still on track to successfully defend the Stanley Cup, which hasn't been done in 15 years.
"A lot of teams around the league made a lot of changes, whether it be coaching or personnel," Kings defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "We only had a one-week training camp. When I think about our group coming back, virtually having the same exact team, same coaching staff, same philosophy -- everything is very consistent. We know we have the right mix in here, and we know what's expected of everyone."
Kings coach Darryl Sutter certainly sees the similarities when he looks around the locker room but doesn't think this year's team is where last year's team was. Well, not yet anyway.
"Not close yet," Sutter said. "Not even half close."