Kings forward Dustin Penner, right, tries to beat San Jose's Logan… (Jeff Gross / Getty Images )
The Kings' journey shouldn't have been so difficult, shouldn't have been a constant struggle to score goals, win at home and stay in the top eight in the preposterously tight Western Conference standings.
But after bouncing between 10th place and third with several stops in between, they're one point from clinching an invitation to the NHL's postseason party. How they got here matters less than the fact they're here and have so many possibilities within their grasp.
"I don't think when we looked at the start of the season that this is the kind of year we thought we were going to have," forward Brad Richardson said. "I don't think anyone in hockey would have thought that. But that's what makes hockey a great game: You never know what's going to happen."
If the Kings earn one point against San Jose on Thursday — or if the Dallas Stars lose to the Nashville Predators in a game that should end at about the time the puck is dropped at Staples Center — the Kings will earn their third straight playoff berth. They could gain the Pacific Division title, No. 3 seeding and home-ice advantage in the first round by Friday if they win Thursday and the Phoenix Coyotes lose at St. Louis in regulation time Friday.
They will close the NHL season against the Sharks at San Jose on Saturday, and the division title could still be on the line. "We don't do anything easy, eh?" center Jarret Stoll said Wednesday after the Kings' practice in El Segundo.
Winning the division would be significant for a team that has won exactly one division championship in its existence (1990-91 Smythe crown), one conference title (1993), and hasn't had home-ice advantage in a playoff series since 1992. "Since I was watching Wayne Gretzky," said Richardson, who was 7 the last time the Kings started a playoff series at home, with home being the Forum.
The Kings could still finish seventh, eighth or on the outside, in ninth place. Stoll suggested that having had to battle for a playoff spot has prepared them for this moment of truth.
"We've gained a lot of experience and a lot of character and went through a lot," he said. "If we do play well these next two games and get there, it's been a long road. It hasn't been an easy one. It's been a bumpy one this year for a lot of us in here, firing a coach and having a new guy come in, and that's never fun. It's never positive and it wasn't, but that just shows the character of the group we have in here.
"We all care about each other and we all care about this team a lot and we know we have a very, very good team and it's a waste if we don't" make the playoffs.
Coach Darryl Sutter was reluctant to look beyond Thursday's game, saying the Kings' biggest obstacle is playing at home. Their 48 points at home (22-14-4) rank 17th, and their 45 road points (18-13-9) rank ninth.
"I think it's very difficult to be a well-prepared hockey player in this environment. You have to really work at it, especially when you don't have a lot of experience at it," he said. "It's not a hockey environment, is it? So you have to make it one, right? May be why they haven't won too many division titles here."
They could soon add to that count, and beating the Sharks on Thursday would be a big boost toward getting third and home-ice advantage.
"We're certainly striving for it. A lot of guys in this room know how important it is," said winger Justin Williams, who won the Stanley Cup with Carolina in 2006.
"Myself, I played in two Game 7s and they were both at home when we won the Cup. It's extremely important.... The hardest part is just getting in, and then getting home ice, that's a plus. We'll be ready."