Dallas Stars' Reilly Smith, left, collides with Kings' Matt… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)
It's starting to feel a lot like last season for the Kings.
After a rocky start and adjustments on defense made necessary by injuries to Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, the Kings have rediscovered the formula that a year ago boosted them from the No. 8 seeding in the West to winning the Stanley Cup. They're blending strong goaltending, punishing defense, good special-teams play and unshakeable resolve, and they've calibrated it to come together at precisely the right time.
Their 4-3 overtime victory over the Dallas Stars at Staples Center on Sunday, secured when Mike Richards threw the puck in front and it glanced off Jeff Carter's chest and past Kari Lehtonen at 4 minutes 8 seconds, solidified their hold on the No. 4 West playoff seeding and put two points between them and No. 5 San Jose. It also extended their point streak to 4-0-1 and gave them points in 12 of their last 14 games (9-2-3).
"This is just my feeling about this team, that when the games become more meaningful we become a better team," Dustin Brown said after a two-goal, seven-hit performance.
"And that's a positive and a negative because there's games that maybe you don't feel they mean as much but they do, early on in the year, and we've shown we like to dig a hole and climb out of it a lot. This year probably not as much, but off the start we didn't play very well."
Their resolve was shown Sunday when they put behind them two debatable calls that could have shattered their poise.
They had taken a 2-0 lead on a first-period goal by Richards, who roofed a short-range shot after Dustin Penner had sent the puck to the front of the net, and a second-period goal at 4:12 by Brown, who finished off a fine passing sequence begun by Justin Williams and Anze Kopitar.
Dallas cut that to 2-1 at 4:32, after a shot by Ray Whitney deflected and came to the skillful Loui Eriksson.
The fun began later in the period.
The play leading up to Dallas' second goal, at 14:54, should have been whistled dead before Antoine Roussel scored. Ryan Garbutt's stick was excessively high when he deflected Alex Goligoski's long shot, but no stoppage was called. When play continued, Roussel tapped the puck into the net. An irate Jonathan Quick protested, to no avail.
Ten seconds into the third period Kings forward Trevor Lewis appeared to have scored but the officials waved it off, though it was never made clear whether the whistle had blown or if they thought Lewis interfered with Lehtonen. Shortly after, an unchecked Goligoski scored from the slot to give Dallas a 3-2 lead.
"I thought we handled adversity really well tonight. I thought that was the reason why we won," said Quick, who stopped 24 shots in beating Dallas for the first time in four tries this season.
"We took a couple bad bounces, a couple calls that maybe should have gone the other way and we kept working."
Brown brought the Kings even, 3-3, at 2:59, when he converted a rebound during a power play. That gave the Kings at least one power-play goal in eight straight games, one area in which they're better than last season. On the winner, Drew Doughty made a terrific pass to Richards to set up what became Carter's 25th goal.
"It's important that we got two points. A big, big two points," Quick said, before learning that San Jose had lost in regulation and got no points.
"So now you build a little bit of a lead. While it's not a big lead it's a lead," he said. "We're just going to go out and try and get two points every night and go from there."
And just keep going toward that first-round matchup.
"The only team that nobody should want to play, quite honestly, is the team that's lost only five games this year," Coach Darryl Sutter said, referring to the Chicago Blackhawks. "I don't think we're selective about that."
They've already accomplished the part that was so hard last season: simply making the playoffs. The rest is up to them.