VANCOUVER, Canada --- Finishing in the top eight in the West had taken so much out of the Kings that Coach Darryl Sutter wasn't sure what his players had in reserve before their first-round series against the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks.
They had overcome a 7-8-1 start at home and repeated dips out of playoff position but then lost their final two games. Sutter, who took over for Terry Murray on Dec. 22, wasn't sure if his team had gone as far as it could manage.
"It was such a battle just to make the playoffs. And you're always weighing that, what do you have left," he said. "It was such a battle from Christmas on to make it. We were an eighth seed because that's what we deserved, quite honestly.
"We started the year behind the eight-ball at home and it's tough to get back. We played so well down the stretch to give us that chance. The only blessing I thought, playing Vancouver, was strictly travel. It was the best time to travel for us."
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It also proved to be the best possible matchup. The Kings' 2-1 overtime victory on Sunday, fueled by Jarret Stoll's wrist shot four minutes and 27 seconds into sudden-death play, completed a five-game series win and sent them to the second round for the first time since 2001. They'll face the Blues starting this weekend in St. Louis. The NHL hasn't yet announced the exact dates.
The Kings were better in just about every area than the Canucks, who were the Stanley Cup runners-up last spring. Vancouver became the sixth Presidents' Trophy winner to be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs since the award was instituted in 1986 for the team with the best regular-season point total.
"You've got to give credit to the Kings. They played a great series and were a real tough opponent," Canucks Coach Alain Vigneault said. "At the end of the day, they deserved to win."
Vancouver's late-season scoring trickle nearly dried up against the Kings' physical play, tight defense and the sharp goaltending of Jonathan Quick, whose poise and calm was the foundation for the first playoff success enjoyed by several key players.
"Our goalie --- nothing new. He kept us in it," center Anze Kopitar said after Sunday's series finale at Rogers Arena.
"It feels great. Maybe it seems a little bit easier beating them 4-1 but all games were really close. They have a good team and it was a battle for sure. But it definitely feels nice."
Their triumph reflected the work of players who never splintered during the worst of times, when the puck simply wouldn't go in the net for them.
It reflected the changes brought about by Sutter, who earned players' respect with positive reinforcement, better game preparation than they had gotten from Terry Murray and a more offense-friendly style.
It also was some vindication for General Manager Dean Lombardi, who spent nearly to the salary cap and wasn't getting nearly enough bang for his $60-plus-million bucks while Murray was in charge. Had Lombardi not fired Murray or not gotten a turnaround engineered by Sutter, Lombardi's job might have been in jeopardy.
And while there are grounds to argue that winning one playoff series doesn't call for huge celebration in a season that began with high expectations, it seems cruel not to give the Kings time to savor their success before demanding that it be considered a jumping-off point, not a final destination.
They know that already, though, and that's a good sign.
"It's awesome. It's something we've been working a long time for," defenseman Alec Martinez said Sunday before the team boarded its charter back to Los Angeles.
"You've got to give credit to Vancouver. They're a great team. There's a reason they were Presidents' Trophy winners.
"It's obviously a big step for our organization and we're really proud of it, but our work's not over."
When reporters entered the Kings' locker room Sunday night the mood was happy but no one was yelling or whooping. Quick said there had been some celebrating immediately after the game. "But we've got to move on," he said. "We've got a big test coming up here again and we've got to move on and get ready for that.
"This time of year you've got to have a short memory and you've got to be able to move on."
And so they did, returning to Los Angeles to prepare to move on to the second round of the playoffs. Their journey and their season aren't over yet.
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