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04-22-2013, 11:22 PM
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Andrew Knoll
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Kings Seek Repeat of Late-Season Magic (The New York Times)

Hi, guys, this piece will appear in tomorrow's edition of The New York Times. It's not so much aimed at huge fans of the team like yourselves since it was for a national audience, but I hope you enjoy it just the same. Thanks for reading!


http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/23/sp...ef=hockey&_r=0

Kings Seek Repeat of Late-Season Magic
By ANDREW KNOLL
LOS ANGELES — Hours before the Los Angeles Kings clinched a playoff berth Saturday, General Manager Dean Lombardi leaned back against a locker room stall and put his hands behind his head and his feet up to shoot the breeze about baseball.

Moments after an arduous overtime victory over the Dallas Stars on Sunday, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, the two longest-tenured Kings, shared a laugh.

“Really, we need you to get it going, Kopi,” Brown said jokingly to Kopitar, who leads the team in scoring this season, as he has the previous six.

“I’m just waiting for a backdoor tap-in,” Kopitar responded, “and then the floodgates will open.”

If the Kings appear relaxed, it is probably because they seem to prosper as the stakes rise. After squeaking into the playoffs as the eighth seed last season, they captured their first Stanley Cup, with a 16-4 postseason.

“We do it every season — our consistency and our whole play has ups and downs throughout the year,” said Brown, the Kings’ captain. “The later in the season, the better we start playing as a group, and that’s the way you want it.”

After a slow start, the Kings are in fourth place in the Western Conference with a 26-14-5 record heading into Tuesday’s game at Minnesota. They have clinched no worse than the sixth seed in the playoffs.

“Playoffs are all about the right timing; last year, everything fell perfectly,” the backup goalie Jonathan Bernier said. “We scored at the right time; we got great saves at the right time, and all those things that came together. We’re hoping it’s going to be the same thing this year.”

The Kings muddled through much of last season offensively, placing heavy pressure on goalie Jonathan Quick and their defense. This season, they are leaning on offensive stars amid a continuing effort to stabilize their defensive play.

Los Angeles has been buoyed by Kopitar, who has 41 points; Jeff Carter, who is fourth in the N.H.L. with 25 goals; and an improved power play. But a re-emphasis on defense and detail and the resurgence of Quick in the net have pushed the Kings from a competitive club to a potential Stanley Cup contender in recent weeks.

“When we’re playing desperate, our best game comes out,” center Jarret Stoll said. “We’re blocking more shots, we’re winning more face-offs, our power play is chipping in big goals, Quick is pretty darn good in there, and all those things are coming together.”

The Kings lost 8 of their first 13 games but find themselves in a position to have the home-ice advantage in a playoff series for the first time since 1992.

“At the start, I think we needed to get smacked around a little bit,” the assistant general manager Ron Hextall said. “We won last year, and I think we were living on that a little.”

Although the Kings returned every member of the Cup-winning roster despite the N.H.L.’s rigid salary cap, they were forced to deal with a series of serious injuries and make major adjustments.

In August, doctors surgically repaired a disc fragment and removed an inflamed cyst from Quick’s back. Only the lockout prevented him from missing significant time.

In December, defenseman Willie Mitchell began having knee problems that eventually required surgery and ended his season. The balance of the Kings’ defense corps was further disrupted by the loss of Matt Greene, who sustained a back injury in the first period of the season opener and did not return until Thursday.

“The loss of Mitchell and the loss of Greene, it changed the complexion of our team, no question,” Hextall said. “When you put them together, it was an enormous loss.”

Compounding the sudden instability on the blue line was Quick’s incremental recovery. He has gained a reputation for fastidious preparation and conditioning, but he spent the off-season unable to face shots, lift weights or train at his customary level.

“I think it was a combination of everything,” the Kings’ goalie coach, Bill Ranford, said. “The biggest thing was going five full months without seeing any pucks, and I think that really hurt him in the first half of the season. He couldn’t really seem to get any flow to his game.”

Ranford said Quick became focused on avoiding fatigue, which led to uncharacteristically poor practice habits and even errors in games. He has struggled to keep his save percentage above .900 while posting a middling 16-12-4 record and only one shutout.

But Quick has reasserted himself of late, going 4-0-1 in his last five starts, allowing nine goals. April has been his best month this season in virtually every statistical category. On Sunday, he made three saves on breakaways, among other challenging stops.

Ranford credited Bernier, the backup, for allowing Quick to get his physique, mind-set and performance on track while the Kings racked up critical wins.

Bernier’s 9-2-1 record included a smattering of midseason appearances. His performance helped catalyze a surge in late February and early March when the Kings won 10 of 12 games.

“He absolutely won some huge games for us,” Hextall said. To replace Mitchell and Greene on the blue line, the Kings shuffled in call-ups and a pair of trade acquisitions, Keaton Ellerby and Robyn Regehr. The rookie defenseman Jake Muzzin also earned a roster spot.

The Kings’ special teams have also coalesced at the right moment. They have killed off 16 straight penalties and 48 of their last 53. They have also scored on the power play in eight consecutive games.

With a newly solidified defense, strong special teams and several proven playoff performers, the Kings may once again be peaking at the right time.

“You can feel the excitement building with every game being bigger and bigger now,” Stoll said. “We’re wired to be competitive. We thrive off that competitiveness, and we get after it.”

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