It wasn't the iconic image -- or importance -- of Marty McSorley's stick, but when the Kings surrendered two goals in the final 1:53 and lost at Montreal to begin their 11-day East Coast swing, their season appeared to be plummeting on a trajectory that was just as sharp as that infamous blade.
Already on the far fringes of the playoff race, the Kings still had visits to two of the NHL's hottest teams, Atlantic Division leader New Jersey and Southeast Division leader Washington, as part of their five-game trip.
"I guess you can say we had a choice," Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick said. "Every team loses games like that -- even Detroit, Boston and San Jose. It's how you respond."
The Kings' response has been loud and clear. Surprisingly, it wasn't a thud.
The Kings haven't lost since. They ended the trip with four consecutive wins, the latest a 4-3 shootout victory against the New York Islanders, with defenseman Jack Johnson scoring the winner.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, February 13, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Hockey: An information box about the Kings in Thursday's Sports section said Calgary's Michael Cammalleri had 28 goals and 24 points so far this season. It should have said 28 goals and 24 assists for a total of 52 points.
They return home tonight against Calgary within three points of the final Western Conference playoff berth, having played fewer games than most of the teams they're chasing.
"As a team, we never lost sight of the playoffs," said defenseman Matt Greene, a veteran on the NHL's youngest team. "I don't think there's any change in the attitude, but maybe we're starting to find our groove a little bit more."
Said Quick: "The biggest thing right now is the momentum of the team. Everyone is playing more confident and playing off each other. One guy has a good shift and that leads to the next guy having a good shift."
There have been several keys to the improved play of the Kings, who have won seven of eight. Quick, handed the job when Erik Ersberg was injured and Jason LaBarbera was traded in December, has been outstanding. He has started eight consecutive games, and has allowed more than three even-strength goals only once in 19 games.
Solidifying the defense had been a point of first-year Coach Terry Murray. That accomplished, the offense is finally starting to come around. The Kings have scored 29 times in their last eight games.
Anze Kopitar, who'd had come off a stretch where he'd scored one goal in 14 games, has four goals in the last three games -- including the winner against the Devils.
"Since the All-Star break, he's been awesome," Greene said of the skillful 21-year-old. "He's doing things with the puck where sometimes you sit back and watch, and you're almost in awe. When your top offensive guys are doing the job, scoring points is easier for the whole team."
The other ingredient to the Kings' recent success is the time they've spent on the road. The team spent two days in Montreal and New York, and players went out to dinner on their off days, or for drinks after games, further establishing a relationship that Murray and some players say carries over to the ice.
"I'd like to have this in October -- I think it can have a positive effect on team building," Murray said. "When you go on the road like this, to win there's a great need for everyone to be a part of it. You need to have your four lines and your six defensemen and your goaltending. That's what's happened with us."
As for that disheartening loss in Montreal, Murray said he tried to emphasize the positive -- that his team had played nearly 59 minutes of terrific hockey in a real hockey environment.
Even if it wasn't the old Forum, Murray joked that the Bell Centre had imported all the ghosts. Thanks to these Kings, he could afford to laugh. This curve has turned out to be a learning one.
On the air: TV: FS West; Radio: 1150.
Where: Staples Center.
Records: Kings 24-21-7; Flames 31-18-5.
Record vs. Flames: 0-2.
Update: The Kings activated 20-year-old forward Oscar Moller, who has been out since breaking his collarbone in early January while captaining Sweden in the World Junior Championships. Former Kings left winger Michael Cammalleri, who was traded to Calgary on draft day, has 28 goals and 24 points. The deal allowed the Kings to take 18-year-old defensemen Colten Teubert with the 13th overall pick.
-- Billy Witz