If success had dulled the Kings' memory of what it felt like to lose, if eliminating the Vancouver Canucks in five games, sweeping the St. Louis Blues and taking the first three games of the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Coyotes had made them forget how deeply a defeat can sting, it all came back to them Sunday afternoon.
On the day they could have clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup finals, they instead had to pack for another trip to the desert to face a team that rediscovered its identity in a scrappy 2-0 victory at Staples Center.
"We were good. But good's not going to get it done around this time of the year," Kings defenseman Matt Greene said. "We've got to be better than we were tonight. They came out flying and we weren't matching their speed."
They didn't match the Coyotes in any area that mattered Sunday, including an 0-for-6 power-play performance that left them two for 23 with the man advantage in this series. Their 36-21 edge in shots was deceptive because most of their efforts came from the perimeter and almost none were generated off rebounds.
The areas where the Kings lost were the areas they had won so decisively in the first three games. They had prevailed in most of the battles along the boards and had used their size and will to own the areas around the net. But the Coyotes weren't ready for their season to end and used that motivation to fuel them Sunday against the bigger, stronger Kings.
"That was Coyote hockey," Phoenix winger Ray Whitney said after his team's persistence and pluck extended the Kings' nearly two-decade wait for a conference title. "When you have nothing to lose, you just throw it all out there and you just see what happens."
The odds and evidence still weigh heavily in the Kings' favor as they return to Glendale, Ariz., for Game 5 on Tuesday. The Kings have won seven straight road games, including the first two games of this series, and still have three chances to get the one victory they need to reach the Cup finals.
"All we need to do is learn a lesson from the Vancouver series," winger Justin Williams said. "We were up, 3-0, and we lost Game 4. We came back with a strong Game 5 in their building.
"We can't make anything easy for them. They got a power-play goal, a goal off a faceoff, and we know what kind of team they are with the lead."
They also know they may come to regret giving the Coyotes even the smallest shred of hope to nurture into something bigger.
"They played really well. It's a good lesson for us," Kings winger Dustin Penner said. "We got the bounces, for the most part, up until tonight."
They got no favors or bounces Sunday but didn't deserve any in their first defeat since April 18, the fourth game of their first-round series against Vancouver.
Goaltender Mike Smith made a handful of good saves in ending the Kings' club-record eight-game postseason winning streak and becoming the first goaltender to blank them this spring and also got tremendous support from his teammates, who blocked 12 shots.
"They threw themselves in front of a lot of shots. Their penalty killing was really good. And they got a power-play goal," Penner said. "We couldn't find an answer for Smith."
That's mainly because they didn't establish a presence in front of the Coyotes' goalie.
"You talk screen, tip, rebound and we didn't get enough of that," Penner said. "We let him see too many pucks and we didn't get enough second and third chances. ... Pretty much one and done."
A loss Sunday would have meant the Coyotes would have been done for the season, but they talked before the game about how they had been through too much together on and off the ice to go out on the sour note of a sweep.
"We're going to go home feeling like we can grab some momentum out of this game," Coach Dave Tippett said. "There's some areas we can certainly embrace that we did better in this game than the other games in this series. You go home and try to push it along again."
It will be the Kings' job to resist that push more forcefully than they did Sunday.
"They earned this one. There's not much more you can say," Penner said.
They can make their most eloquent statement Tuesday, on the ice.