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Captain Brown leads the way

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings

Dustin Brown’s list of potential vacation destinations is quickly getting shorter. Phoenix? Not such a good idea. Vancouver? Probably not. In fact, Brown might as well scratch off most of the 29 NHL cities.

The most unassuming of villains, Brown is quickly becoming a public enemy in all the cities in which the Kings play. No, Brown hasn’t robbed any banks or vandalized anything, but he has irritated -- in some cases, enraged -- local fans and players because of his effectiveness on the ice.

Brown has been a key scorer for the Kings in this postseason, but moreover, he’s been a physical threat, one who has toed the line with massive hits that have had opponents calling for suspensions. Thoughout it all, Brown has been a silent assassin, which has only infuriated people all the more.

Brown leads the Kings in this postseason with seven goals and 16 points, and he also leads the league in highlight hits. In the first round, he decimated Vancouver’s Henrik Sedin. In the conference finals, he leveled Michal Rozsival just before the Kings scored an overtime goal to eliminate the Phoenix Coyotes in Game 5.

``I love the way he plays,’’ Kings winger Dustin Penner said, ``and that’s the general consensus I get from everybody I talk to, whether it’s friends or family. He plays the game hard. He plays it physical. He plays it on the line. He’s an honest player. He has forced his will and imposed his physicality on other teams.

``I can’t think of the right word, but he’s just been an in-your-face type of player for us, and he’s been able to back it up.’’

Brown isn’t a classic NHL irritant, in that he’s not a trash-talker or a player who will do anything cheap in scrums. He will fight occasionally, but usually only to defend his honor after a big hit. More likely, Brown will deliver a huge hit, then quietly skate away as opponents chase after him and yap.

Part of that is Brown’s nature. As the Kings’ captain, he’s a quiet leader, on and off the ice, but perhaps there’s more to it. Perhaps Brown knows that by staying with the silent-but-deadly persona, he can be even more effective. That’s the view of one current teammate and former foe.

``I chased him around the rink, when I was in Vancouver, a few times,’’ defenseman Willie Mitchell said. ``He’s so strong on his feet. He competes hard, hits like a freight train, as we all know. He’s a tough guy to hit, because he is so strong on his feet. He hits you hard, and you want to hit him, but you have a tough time hitting him because he’s so strong. I do think, and even before I came here, is that he hits hard but he hits clean. I give him a lot of credit for that.

``His game is a clean game, but he hits hard. He’s a real quiet guy on the ice, quieter guy off the ice. I found that out when I came here. Sometimes that gets under your skill a little more, when you’re playing against him. Sometimes a guy hits you hard and you want to engage with that guy and he just kind of skates away. It’s even worse. I know that from playing against him. It definitely gets under your skin a little bit, and that’s what makes him a great player.’’

It’s been an evolution for Brown, but the physical element has always been a part of his game. Drafted in the first round by the Kings in 2003, Brown brought some junior-level offensive credentials to the Kings, but quickly made a name for himself as a teenaged rookie by delivering a series of big hits.

Certainly, there are more glamorous and easier ways to become noticed in the NHL, but Brown saw an opportunity and claimed it.

``Getting here, you do whatever it takes to stay at this level,’’ Brown said. ``I just kind of filled that physical void, and it just kind of became part of my game. Over the course of my career, it’s been (about) finding that balance each and every year.’’

Perhaps this year, more than ever, Brown has reached that balance. When coach Darryl Sutter arrived midseason, he stressed the word ``identity’’ for each of his players and for the team in general, the idea of not just playing the game but having an attitude in terms of the way it is played.

In the Kings’ case, Brown’s game exemplifies that identity. The Kings, to be certain, aren’t going to be the highest-scoring team in the league, but they do have the ability to be a full-motored, skating-and-hitting machine that plays with an edge, and the Kings need only look to their captain for the best example.

``I think it’s a full-team effort when it comes to that category,’’ Brown said. ``We have everyone finishing their checks. That can probably, maybe, get under their skin a little bit more, because of the way I play and, again, we have a big, strong, physical team, and it’s not fun to play against.

``We’ve done it before. If you get pounded relentlessly, each and every game, eventually it wears on you. We’ve handled the physical side really well, from a discipline standpoint, and also played on the edge, where we’re not crossing over too many times.’’

Brown got closest to that line at the end of the Western Conference Finals. Late in the overtime period, Brown came face-to-face with Rozsival at the Kings’ blue line, just before an offside whistle. The players collided, body to body, and Rozsival collapsed while Brown skated away, apparently unscathed.

Rozsival needed help to get to the bench -- he would later be diagnosed with a bruise -- while the Coyotes were irate that Brown did not get a penalty. Brown heard taunts and threats during the postgame handshake line as Phoenix fans littered the ice with trash.

The next day, Brown didn’t get a disciplinary call from the league, and shrugged off the reaction to the hit.

``I take pride in playing the game clean and hard,’’ Brown said. ``It’s a hockey game, and there are going to be hits that are unfortunate but still clean, and that’s what I thought had happened.’’

Long before that hit, Brown had put his stamp on this postseason. In the first round, Brown had four goals in five games against Vancouver, including two shorthanded goals in Game 2 that helped give the Kings huge momentum in the series.

Brown followed that up by scoring two goals in Game 4 of the second round against St. Louis, as the Kings completed a sweep and moved to the Western Conference Finals.

``I think you need your best players to be your best players at this time of the year,’’ Mitchell said. ``He’s our captain and one of our best players, and there’s no doubt that he has risen to the occasion. There have been big moments throughout these playoffs, a lot of big moments by himself and there have been some other guys as well. You want your captain to step up and lead the charge, and he has done that. He has done that on a physical level and he has done that with timely plays over the course of the different series. That’s what you need and that’s what you expect to get to the big dance like we are.

``He has done a terrific job. I think he’s enjoying this time a lot, too, because he’s a guy who hasn’t had a lot of playoff experience, so to speak. I know he has played a lot on big stages on a world level, and stuff like that, but I think he’s really enjoying this moment too. When you enjoy the moment, it puts a little extra wind at your back. Your legs get a bit lighter and it brings the best out of individuals, and he’s using that energy the right way.’’

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