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Kings take a different road to Western Conference finals

During last season's run to the Stanley Cup title, the Kings rode a hot streak into the playoffs. This season, they had to overcome a slow start and variety of injuries to make a deep postseason run.

May 30, 2013|By Andrew Gastelum

Have you recently become a Los Angeles Kings fan because of their playoff run?

Here’s what you need to know about the reigning Stanley Cup champions as they prepare to play the top-seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference finals, which begin with Game 1 at 2 p.m. PDT Saturday at the United Center in Chicago.

The Kings rewrote the NHL record book in 2012, becoming the first eighth-seeded team to win the Stanley Cup. They went 16-4 in the playoffs, eliminating the Western Conference’s top three-seeded teams. 

But 2013 brought a season shortened to 48 games because of a labor dispute as well as another shot at glory, with the Kings trying to become the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997-1998 to repeat as NHL champions. 

Injuries were the major issues for the Kings this season.

Would goalie Jonathan Quick regain his record-setting Stanley Cup form, when he had a .946 save percentage and 1.41 goals against average to earn the Conn Smythe Award as the top player in postseason? After signing a 10-year, $58-million contract extension, would the lockout be just what was needed to give him time to recover from off-season back surgery? 

Could All-Star center Anze Kopitar keep the momentum rolling from his NHL-leading 20-point playoff performance? Or would the knee injury he sustained while spending the lockout playing with Mora, a second-tier Swedish team, hinder him? 

How would the young Kings defense respond after losing steady veteran and top penalty-killer Willie Mitchell for the season to complications from knee surgery? To add to the injury problems, the Kings lost defenseman and assistant captain Matt Greene for all but five regular-season games after he had back surgery. 

But following a step backward, the Kings seemed to respond with two steps forward, culminating in a fifth-place finish in the Western Conference. Right winger Jeff Carter took charge, leading the team with 26 goals. Kopitar led the Kings in points (42) for the sixth consecutive season with 10 goals and 32 assists.

A shot of youth in defensemen Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin, each in their first full season with the Kings, bolstered the blue line in front of a recovering Quick. Voynov ranks first among Los Angeles defensemen  in points (25) and is second on the team with four postseason goals while Muzzin notched a team-high plus-16 rating during the regular season.

 But not all was well once the puck dropped.

The season started with the Kings raising its first championship banner in its 46-year history on Jan. 19. But the Blackhawks crashed the long-overdue celebration with a 5-2 win. 

“Teams were gunning for us all year,” forward Kyle Clifford said. “Couldn’t ease our way into games.” 

The same road prowess Los Angeles used to bulldoze its way to the title -- 10 consecutive road wins in the 2012 playoffs -- evaporated as the Kings opened the first month of the season with 10 road games and a 5-6-2 record that left them in last place in the Pacific Division. After a 3-2 loss to the Blackhawks on Feb. 17, the Kings were 29th in the league in scoring a quarter of the way through the season. 

Then, something clicked, especially with Carter. Twenty of his team-leading 26 goals came after the Chicago loss. Following that defeat, the Kings won nine out of their next 11 games to launch them into playoff position in the Western Conference, closing out a flat February on a five-game winning streak.  

Still, the injuries had unintended effects, none feeling it more than All-Star defenseman Drew Doughty, who was asked to carry a bigger workload. He trudged into a March 25 matchup against the Blackhawks with one goal, 12 points and a minus-two rating. 

But the 23-year-old defenseman had a crucial assist and skated more than 29 minutes in a thriller at the United Center that featured five lead changes, with the Kings claiming a 5-4 win after captain Dustin Brown scored with 1:27 left in the third period. From there, Los Angeles closed the season with a 9-4-3 record, including a 3-2 victory over the division-rival Sharks that secured the fifth seeding.

Before a seven-game showdown with the Sharks in the conference semifinals, the Kings had to stare down a 2-0 deficit to the fourth-seeded St. Louis Blues in the first round of the playoffs. Los Angeles responded with four consecutive wins, led by an inspired Quick, who gave up only 10 goals in six games. 

In the conference semifinals, Quick led the Kings into San Jose up 2-0 and 3-2, but the Sharks forced a Game 7 in Los Angeles with their third straight 2-1 victory at home in the series. But while San Jose tried to turn the series on its head with a road win, Quick stood on his, stopping 195 of 205 shots in the series with a 1.42 goals against average.  

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