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HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

Good times roll for Los Angeles Kings' Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar

Team captain Dustin Brown, center Anze Kopitar paid their dues, suffering through years of Kings frustration. For them, sweeping St. Louis to reach NHL Western Conference finals couldn't be sweeter.

May 06, 2012|Helene Elliott

As the longest-serving current Kings, forwards Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar have been through the worst of hockey times.

Brown, who made his NHL debut during the 2003-04 season, and Kopitar, who made an immediate impact as a rookie in 2006-07, have been there for all the broken promises and unrealized dreams, through coaching changes and baffling lineup shuffles. They allowed their optimism to flower when things changed for the better and persevered when the young team sometimes took two steps back for every three steps forward.

It was only right, then, that Brown and Kopitar were at the center Sunday of the Kings' most joyous playoff moment in too many years.

Both had waited so long for this, for Kopitar to leap into Brown's arms and body-slam him to the Staples Center ice after Brown scored an empty-net goal to clinch the Kings' 3-1 victory and provide the final flourish of their surprising sweep of the No. 2-seeded St. Louis Blues.

"It was just excitement," Brown said. "Kopi was probably more excited than me. I don't think he realized how big he is. He jumped about two feet in the air. He was about 27 inches above me."

Kopitar, normally poised, was entitled to lose his cool.

"It's definitely a new thing for me. I don't think I've been excited like this in a long time," he said. "The last thing I can compare to this is probably my draft day, but this tops it off because it's a lot more fun and we're still going."

The crowd roared at them. Their teammates roared louder FOR them, seeing poetic justice in the moment.

"Definitely, especially Brownie," defenseman Drew Doughty said after the Kings earned their first conference finals berth since 1993.

"Brownie's been here forever. He didn't even make the playoffs until two seasons ago. So he went through it all. He went through the tough times. To see the way he's playing now that we're finally here is great to see."

Kopitar's journey involved traveling thousands of miles from his native Slovenia to refine his talents in Sweden and then on to the NHL, where he has become a premier two-way center.

Brown's journey involved self-discovery as he matured from a quiet kid who stuttered and still has a mild lisp to an acknowledged leader who communicates his ferocious will loudly and clearly.

When the native of Ithaca, N.Y., became the Kings' youngest-ever captain in 2008 at age 23, his ability to lead was questioned. When the team failed to meet high expectations this season, his credentials were again doubted, as were his prospects of staying past the trade deadline.

There are no more questions or misgivings after Brown and Kopitar led the Kings to the first sweep of a best-of-seven playoff series in team history and to a West finals matchup against the winner of the Phoenix-Nashville series.

"It's one of the best parts about this job, seeing young people develop like that. Not only as hockey players, but what you see is the development of a man," General Manager Dean Lombardi said.

"The thing about Dustin you always knew, and why we said OK, we chose him, he cares. There was no doubt he cared. And if you got that you got something to work with. You care about the right things, you've got a chance. And that was always in place. There was never any doubt about where his heart was."

And there was never any doubt during this series where Brown's mind was. St. Louis was black-and-Blue by the end.

"He was good," Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He's learned through a lot of heartache how to play the right way. He was a wildcat coming in and probably has learned how to become a positive influence when their temperature's up. He was effective."

Which is like saying Wayne Gretzky could score goals.

Brown and Kopitar each had two goals and six points in this series. Both were mainstays of a penalty-killing unit that neutralized all 17 disadvantages and both contributed defensively. Kopitar displayed a fine enough touch Sunday to slip a loose puck into the glove of goaltender Jonathan Quick midway through the third period and save a sure goal when the Kings' lead was merely that, one goal.

The Kings grew up on Sunday because Brown grew up to be the person Lombardi hoped he would be.

"Leadership is rising to the occasion at critical moments and that's what you're getting," Lombardi said. "You can talk about everything else, but it's still what you do in critical moments.

"And his growth, from the first day he sat in my office and was looking down at the ground and couldn't put two words together to where he is today. . . . Some leaders are born. There are natural leaders just like there are natural athletes. But in the right environment with the right guidance you can nurture leadership, and he's come a long way."

But not yet long enough.

"We're proud of this group," Brown said, "but we don't want to be known as the only other Kings team to make it past the second round."

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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