Maybe the Kings enjoy living dangerously.
Facing a nine-point deficit in their quest for a playoff berth, they mobilized for a 13-2-5-2 push that lifted them into seventh place in the Western Conference. Facing a 2-0 deficit Sunday in their best-of-seven playoff series against the Detroit Red Wings, they rediscovered their assertiveness and resilience in grabbing a 2-1 victory, which ended their 14-game playoff losing streak and cut the Red Wings' series lead to 2-1.
"We came over there to Detroit maybe a little satisfied we were in the playoffs," center Jozef Stumpel said. "But we woke up. Now we can focus on winning Game 4 and tying the series. We have to play like we did lately, back in the season."
The Kings' sense of urgency was obvious Sunday, to the delight of a pompom-waving, Staples Center sellout crowd. The Kings scored first, their first lead in the series, first in seven playoff games against Detroit in two series and first in any postseason game since Game 3 of their 1998 first-round dismissal by St. Louis. But more important, they scored last, with 6:27 left in the third period, when Stumpel eluded Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom in front of the net and deflected a shot by Mathieu Schneider past goalie Chris Osgood.
"We wanted to go after them and play our kind of game," Stumpel said. "It was great. We got the lead and we were fighting.
"It was great to get the first [playoff] win in a while. We got maybe something off our back and hopefully, it will continue."
Stumpel's first goal of the series and first since the 1998 playoffs enabled the Kings to avoid a 3-0 deficit, a daunting obstacle only the 1975 New York Islanders and 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs have overcome in a best-of-seven series. Instead, they return to Staples Center on Wednesday with a chance to climb back onto level ground with the Red Wings, who are seeded second in the West.
"We have to come in with everything from the bottom of the heart," Stumpel said Monday after the Kings conducted off-ice workouts at HealthSouth training center in El Segundo. "We have to do the same thing as the last game and even more."
That applies to Stumpel too.
At 6 feet 3 and 218 pounds, he has the size to be an elite NHL center, and he has quick hands and good passing skills to average a point or more a game. However, the 28-year-old Slovak's ascent has been blocked by a succession of injuries that have kept him out of 62 games over the last three seasons.
After missing the first seven games of the season because of a contract dispute, he missed seven games because of a broken rib, two because of a strained hamstring and two because of a broken toe. He was also a healthy scratch for one game. In previous seasons, a hernia, bruised knee, hip flexor/abdominal strain and bad ankle kept him from being a consistent presence in the lineup.
When Coach Andy Murray and his staff rated their players after the first two games of the series, Stumpel didn't make the short list of those who had played up to their capabilities. Scoring the winning goal Sunday doesn't mean he's on that list or entrenched there. For the Kings to threaten the Red Wings and not merely annoy them, Stumpel must produce and lead like a true first-line center and not like someone who's a No. 1 center by default.
"I know when he plays good we're a much better team," Murray said. "We need him to be good all the time--which is answering with a positive side. We need him to be good. [In the first two games] he didn't play very good."
Like his teammates, Stumpel recognized the need to ratchet up the intensity Sunday. They initiated contact from the outset, battled on the boards and in the corners and refused to be outworked.
"We weren't waiting for what was going to happen," he said. "We were making contact. . . . Everybody saw how we were playing the last couple of games and knew we had to put more effort in the next couple of games. We have to give everything we have and pay the price. It was pretty tough playing in Detroit and the next day in L.A., but you have to do it. It doesn't matter who has more bruises at the end, but who wins the game."
Bruises and victories, however, often go together in the playoffs. And the Kings need to take--and dish out--more punishment, particularly on the power play. The Kings were 0 for 5 Sunday and are scoreless in 11 advantages in the series.
Asked what the Kings must do differently against Detroit's conscientious penalty killers, Stumpel smiled.
"We have to score goals," he said.
If only it were that simple. But he was encouraged that the Kings had some decent power-play chances Sunday, including a first-period shot by Luc Robitaille that clanged off the post.
"We have to get better breakouts and get the puck in the zone and work on it," he said. "We have to be a little bit more hungry. Sometimes, you have to be lucky too."
Sometimes, desperation helps.
"To me, our goal right now is to have a sixth game in L.A.," Murray said. "To be able to take it to Detroit for seven if we have to, but our goal is to have a sixth game in L.A. and then we'll take it from there, because I think Game 7 could be played anyplace."
KINGS vs. DETROIT
Red Wings lead best-of-seven series, 2-1
Wednesday at Staples Center, 7:30 p.m., Fox Sports Net
With an inspired effort, the Kings finally found a way to break "The Curse of Marty McSorley." D6
No matter how effective the Detroit defense is, the Kings know they need to solve their power-play problems. D6
Toronto 3, Ottawa 2 (OT)
Pittsburgh 3, Washington 0
Philadelphia 3, Buffalo 2
St. Louis 6, San Jose 3
Colorado 4, Vancouver 3 (OT)