The Los Angeles Kings assembled a beefy, bulldozing team last year. Along the way they smashed the Blues and swept them out of the playoffs.
“Los Angeles won the Stanley Cup based on their board play last year,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock recently observed. “They won the board battles against every team.”
The Kings still play a heavy game, in today’s parlance, but so do the retooled Blues.
“They’ve got a big, strong, physical team,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said Monday afternoon after his team practiced at Scottrade Center. “Their goalie is playing well. It’s a matter of just focusing on what we need to do and making it difficult for them.”
The Kings’ evolution began last season when powerful young wingers Jordan Nolan and Dwight King graduated from the American Hockey League. Their robust forechecking helped the Kings tilt the ice against opponents and sustain pressure in the offensive end.
Cornerstone defenseman Drew Doughty played bigger as the stakes grew. Rangy forward Jeff Carter arrived in a late-season trade with Columbus to add offensive punch.
Brown shrugged off trade speculation, picked up his play and helped fuel the surge. Goaltender Jonathan Quick played brilliantly down the stretch and carried that through the postseason.
The Kings gathered steam late, rallying with 13 March victories to reach the playoffs. Then they built momentum round by round while pushing forward to the Stanley Cup.
“It’s an interesting thing when you go through it, because you can feel the momentum,” Brown said. “I think momentum is more important in playoff hockey than the regular season. You can really step on a team’s throat, or vice-versa, in certain situations.”
The bulk of that championship team is back to defend the title. The Kings continued their domination of the Blues by winning all three of their regular-season games this season.
“Obviously we’ve just simply played better than them when we’ve played them,” winger Justin Williams said. “But it’s a new animal. It’s playoffs. They’re, I’m sure, looking for revenge.”
Like last year’s team, the 2013 Kings suffered a slow start before regaining speed and had a 24-11-3 record during their final 38 games.
“They played well coming into postseason. That’s what you want as a coaching staff,” coach Darryl Sutter said. “We want the detail in their game and we’ve had that. Now it’s emotional response and that is basically the individuals’ responsibility.”
Quick struggled for much of the season after recovering from back surgery. He finally regained last season’s form, going 5-1-1 in his final seven games with a 1.94 GAA and .927 save percentage.
Brown picked up where he left off last spring by scoring 18 goals in 46 games. Carter regained his elite goal-scoring form, delivering 26 times this season.
Center Anze Kopitar played his typically strong overall game throughout the season. The Kings excelled in special teams play, ranking in the league’s top 10 for both penalty killing and the power play.
“We’re in a good spot mentally as a group,” Brown said. “It’s important for us to have the right mind-set. We went through it just last year, but sometimes you’ve got to really focus on how hard it is and just how much work you have to put in to be successful this time of year ... doing the right things both on and off the ice to prepare yourself.
“The two things this time of year are preparation and your will. You have good preparation, then it is just a matter of doing it, right?”
Sutter admired his team’s ability to re-focus after winning the Cup last year.
“Our players have done an incredible job handling the attention,” he said. “They have done an awesome job. It hasn’t affected their performance one bit.”
But the Kings are still fitting some pieces together. They won just eight of 24 road games this season, a trend that continued with losses at Minnesota and Detroit during the final week of the season.
Brown sat out the last two games of the season while serving an NHL suspension, forcing Sutter to shuffle his lines.
Super-sized winger Dustin Penner, a key component in last year’s title run, has struggled for much of the season. He has scored just two goals. Since March 9, Penner has produced just one goal and five assists.
Physical defenseman Matt Greene is still rounding back into shape after missing almost the entire season with a back injury. Defenseman Willie Mitchell is shelved with a serious knee injury, necessitating the trade for Robyn Regehr.
“In a perfect world you always want to be settled in your lines and your pairs going into the playoffs, but obviously that’s not going to be the case,” Sutter told reporters Saturday.
The Kings relied heavily on organizational depth while battling through a condensed 48-game schedule. Sutter expects that trend to continue in the playoffs.
The first five games of this series will be played in nine days.
“In the playoffs, you don’t win games without having a really good team,” Sutter said. “Especially when they jam the schedule down your throat, you’re going to need lots of guys to play really well.”