ROSEMONT, Ill. -- The Los Angeles Kings have grown fond of saying that last year they learned how to find success and this year they're learning how to deal with it.
The second part can be harder than the first.
"There is another level that an athlete should want to reach even after you've won [a championship]," Kings general manager Dean Lombardi said Friday. "To be part of a franchise in the mode of the [Detroit] Red Wings, [Green Bay] Packers or [New England] Patriots -- there is another level, far from being the best you can be as an individual and as a team. I think we're progressing toward that."
Lombardi isn't saying that because his team is back in the Western Conference Final, with Game 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks set for Saturday at United Center (5 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS). He's saying it because throughout the regular season and right into the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he has seen that progression while watching them play from his spot high above the ice.
He saw it after the Kings lost the first two games to the St. Louis Blues in the conference quarterfinals before winning four straight to capture the series. He saw it again in Game 7 against the San Jose Sharks in the semifinals, a must-win game after the Kings had lost three of four.
However, Lombardi specifically spoke about a regular-season game against the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 10, when the Kings were struggling to find themselves as defending champs.
They entered Joe Louis Arena with a 3-4-2 record and left 3-5-2 because Red Wings defenseman Jonathan Ericsson scored the game-winner with 4.5 seconds left. Kings defenseman Alec Martinez had tied it with 52.8 seconds remaining, but Ericsson's goal made Jimmy Howard's 45-save night stand up in a 3-2 win.
"We were struggling, we go into Detroit, arguably completely outplayed them, they tied it up in the last minute and they scored with [4.5] seconds left," Lombardi said. "Given where we were, the way we responded after that said a lot to me."
The Kings won 11 of their next 14 games and went 24-11-3 from that point on to finish fifth in the Western Conference.
"Again, there is a critical moment to rise," Lombardi said. "Unless you have character and competitive and leadership in that room, I think a lesser team says, 'Heck with it, we'll do it next year.' That's what jumps out to me."
Lombardi then looked to his left at Kings coach Darryl Sutter and said, "but he can speak to it better than I can."
Sutter spoke generally of how important that part of the season was for the Kings, but he said their learning curve on how to handle success started the moment the lockout ended.
"We won the Stanley Cup last year, so in terms of critical points during the season, we had to overcome a lot of adversity just because of when you win it, it's not just about playing the games, but everything that comes along with that," Sutter said.
He's talking about handling the outside pressures that champions in every city face. The Kings must have handled it well considering they are the first defending Stanley Cup champion to make it back to the conference final the following season since the Red Wings in 2009.
"We come back, basically our training camp, you had to fit on-ice stuff into off-ice stuff -- it's still part of the celebration part of it in terms of the interview functions," Sutter said. "Our players did an awesome part of handling that. There's adversity there. There are people following you that are critiquing every shift you play. The players handled all that very well."
More adversity came in the form of injuries to Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell, a pair of veteran defensemen who logged big minutes in the playoffs last season, especially on the Kings top-ranked penalty kill.
Greene played in the season opener against the Blackhawks, hurt his back and sat out the next 42 games. Mitchell didn't play at all this season because of his bad knees.
"Those two guys are arguably two of the best penalty killers in the league," Lombardi said. "They're clearly leaders on the back end. They were paired with puck movers. We didn't have that all year. They were a big part of our team and our identity. They're not the rock stars, but everybody knows how important they are, and we didn't have them all year. People forget that. That's pretty significant."
"You talk about improved players and you tend to forget about guys like Doughty and Voynov because they're such really good players," Lombardi said.
The injuries also forced the Kings to find someone from their minor-league system to step in. Jake Muzzin got the call and put up 16 points and a plus-16 rating in 45 games.
"The coaches did a great job breaking that kid in under tough circumstances," Lombardi said.
Greene is back in the lineup and Lombardi acquired Mitchell's replacement, Robyn Regehr, from the Buffalo Sabres before the NHL Trade Deadline. Regehr signed a two-year, $6 million contract extension Thursday.
"Arguably this is the first time all year -- Willie isn't -- but we're even close to being healthy, but we deserved that," Lombardi said. "We were fortunate last year to go through the playoffs without injury, and that's the type of adversity that you've got to overcome and your turn is coming. We took it in a big way with those two guys."
If there is more adversity coming against the Blackhawks, the Kings won't be worried. They're pros at handling it.
"We didn't get here by accident," Sutter said.