The last minutes felt like hours, pulling fans at Staples Center out of their seats to moan and beseech the hockey gods for one more save by Jonathan Quick, one more win for the Kings over the San Jose Sharks in the seventh game of an agonizingly close Western Conference semifinal series.
"Yeah, they put a lot of pressure on us," Kings captain Dustin Brown said. "Quickie had to make three or four huge saves for us. I guess that's normal for him."
The spectacular is again the norm for Quick, just as it was last spring when he deservedly was voted the most valuable player in their improbably swift romp to the Stanley Cup. But so much else has changed that Quick's exploits are among the few constants they can rely on this season.
BOX SCORE: Kings 2, Sharks 1
The Kings on Tuesday reached the West finals by the thinnest of margins, winning a Game 7 against the Sharks by a 2-1 count in a series that played out according to home ice in each game. "This group's been through a lot," a sweaty but happy Brown said, "but this was something new for us, a Game 7."
For the Kings, who lost standout penalty killer and faceoff specialist Jarret Stoll to a concussion in Game 1 and tinkered with their lineup throughout the series, it didn't matter that they had to come back from a 2-0 first-round deficit against St. Louis. Or that they took 13 games to reach the conference finals instead of the nine-game express-lane trip they enjoyed last season. It mattered only that they will continue their quest for a second straight title, a feat so difficult that no team has done it since the Detroit Red Wings won in 1997 and repeated in 1998.
The Kings are the first defending champion to get past the second round since the Red Wings won in 2008 and lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2009 Cup Final.
"You take it however you can to be alive right now," said defenseman Matt Greene, blood oozing near his left eye from a cut he suffered on his first shift Tuesday but called "just a smear" and didn't bother to get stitched up.
"We're going to the Western Conference championships and let's get it going. We're not going to ask how we got here. We're here."
They will face the winner of Wednesday's Game 7 between the Red Wings and the Chicago Blackhawks, with the series set to begin at Chicago on Saturday afternoon if the top-seeded Blackhawks prevail or at Staples Center on Friday if the Red Wings pull off an upset.
Having home-ice advantage is an obvious attraction for the Kings, who have won 14 straight home games, but defenseman Rob Scuderi said players have no preference about their next opponent.
"You're going to have to beat good teams to get to the finals. So whoever wins we'll figure it out," Scuderi said.
"Certainly we'd like home ice but I'm confident in our ability to play with anybody. We came back in the St. Louis series. We're not afraid to play anybody."
They need not fear as long as Quick is on his game, as he has been since mid-March. He has stopped 362 of 382 shots in the playoffs, none more spectacular or crucial than the point-blank save he made on Joe Pavelski with the inside of his left wrist with 5:04 left in the third period.
"That save is a game-breaker for them," Brown said. "That's why he's our backbone back there. It's not like you expect him to make those saves, but you expect him to make those saves, right?"
As long as that aspect of the Kings' game is the same, this journey can continue indefinitely. The road is bumpier than it was a year ago but the Kings will take the bruises and detours to reach that same destination.
"We played at a little more of a dominant pace last year and we'd like to get some of that back," Scuderi said. "But the one thing I do like about our team is we've come on strong in each series. The other team has backed us off at first and I think we came back stronger as the series went along. It's something that we can be confident with."