GLENDALE, Ariz. – There's nothing inexplicable about the remarkable run the Los Angeles Kings are having in these Stanley Cup playoffs. Their best player is playing his best hockey at the most opportune time.
It's that simple, really.
With just over 18 minutes to go and the Kings locked in a tie with the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals, Dustin Brown took a nifty pass from Slava Voynov, raced up the ice on a breakaway toward a heretofore impenetrable Mike Smith and calmly ripped the puck into the back of the net.
That one goal, early in the third period, did more than put the Kings in the lead for good; it saved them from what had all the makings of a derailing defeat in L.A.'s unyielding march toward the Stanley Cup, and instead keyed a 4-2 victory.
To that point the Kings had thoroughly dominated the Coyotes – the 'Yotes to the locals – picking up where they left off after sweeping the St. Louis Blues in Round 2. They'd come out and scored three minutes in, something the Nashville Predators couldn't do in more than 120 straight minutes against Smith, then continued to pepper the Phoenix goalie with shot after shot … after shot after shot.
Seriously. It was like target practice with Smith playing the clay pigeon.
By the end of the first period, the Kings held a 16-4 lead in the shot department. By the end of the second, it was 33-19. Yet the scoreboard read 2-2, with one of those Phoenix goals coming on a ridiculous slap shot from center ice that somehow made it past Jonathan Quick.
Lose a game like this and who knows what it does to a team's psyche. Alas, we don't have to wonder because Brown did what a captain is supposed to do.
To this point in these playoffs, Smith and Quick had been the presumptive Conn Smythe Trophy leaders. (For those south of the Canadian border, that's the fancy name the NHL gives its playoff MVP). But in another 60 minutes of brilliance Sunday, Brown became the frontrunner as the Kings rolled on to yet another victory.
"He's playing his best hockey since I've here in six years," said Anze Kopitar, who scored the Kings' first goal on a deft pass from Brown. "I think he realizes we need him to play like that in order to be successful, and right now he's clicking on the ice and he's making plays. He's scoring big goals, obviously. That's what good captains and good leaders do."
[Puck Daddy: Where did the Coyotes go wrong in Game 1?]
It's how teams – eight seeds or otherwise – win six straight playoff games and nine of 10, as the Kings have done.
But don't buy into any hype that this is somehow a Cinderella story. From a talent standpoint, the Kings are no eight seed. They only played to one during the regular season, partly because their captain was in a funk.
He's not anymore. Those trade rumors in February woke up Brown, who said Sunday he's playing "the best hockey I've played at any level, really. Not only the type of hockey, but the timing – playing at this time of year."
It's the kind of hockey he knew he was capable of playing, which has led to the level he knew this team could achieve. On Sunday, the Kings out-shot the Coyotes 48-27. That one stat tells the story better than the score, which was 3-2 until Dustin King deposited his second goal of the game into an empty net with less than a minute to play.
They wouldn't say it afterward, but this was a statement game by the team from L.A., which has yet to lose a game on the road in these playoffs.
"I think we had the personal and the team belief going back to the start of the year," Brown said when asked if the team honestly believed prior to the postseason it could win it all. "It wasn't the easiest year for us as a group of guys, but we thought we had a good team.
"The confidence has definitely built coming down the stretch. Battling to get into the playoffs, then knocking off Vancouver definitely boosted the confidence."
Which, after Sunday's win, continues to soar.
As for the other locker room, Phoenix had looked every bit as good as L.A. through the first two rounds of these playoffs. But after getting blitzkrieged for most of 60 minutes Sunday, the 'Yotes have to be worried that the Kings might do to them what they did to the Blues.
Yes, it's still very early in this series, but in these playoffs it's been getting late real quick for anyone who has stepped in the Kings' path.
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