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Experience Beginning To Add Up

by Rich Hammond / Los Angeles Kings
Two years ago, a lot of zeros boarded the Kings’ flight to Vancouver for the start of the playoffs.

Dustin Brown: zero career playoff games. Drew Doughty: zero career playoff games. Anze Kopitar: zero career playoff games. Jonathan Quick: zero career playoff games. A quartet of young players, the core that had led the Kings to the playoffs for the first time in eight years, suddenly found itself on unfamiliar turf.

If experience is the best teacher, these Kings have been well-schooled. Back-to-back years of first-round playoff exits, coupled with the addition of some postseason-tested players, have put the Kings in a position to do what they couldn’t do in 2010: pull an upset of the highly-favored Vancouver Canucks.

The Kings lead 3-0 in the best-of-seven series heading into tonight’s Game 4 at STAPLES Center. If the Kings are able to win the series, it will be a big moment for a team that has been trying to take the next step since president/general manager Dean Lombardi began his slow, steady rebuilding project in 2006.

Of the 20 players who are expected to suit up tonight for the Kings, 10 have never won an NHL playoff series. The best players, and best teams, reveal themselves in the postseason, and the Kings know that only by winning in the playoffs can they truly validate their progress over the past few years.

``Part of getting to the next level is losing,’’ captain Dustin Brown said recently. ``We lost in the regular season for two or three years, and then we finally figured out what it takes. I think it’s no different in the playoffs. Everything is just more magnified, and you learn a lot quicker. What you learn in six or seven games in the playoffs, it takes a couple years (in the regular season).

``We’ve had two years in a row, now, where we’ve had opportunities to give ourselves a better opportunity, later in the series, to have the upper hand and we let it slip by. Now, it’s important for us to give ourselves an opportunity to get that upper hand. We have some different personnel in here a little bit, and some guys have been through it and understand what happened in the last couple years here.

“We’ve had the experience of the last couple years,” Brown continued.  “Now it’s important to apply that this year and bring attention to every little thing, every detail that we’ve learned as a group over the last couple years.’’

Brown, as the letter on his jersey would indicate, has led the way for the Kings, with four goals in three games. Quick, after tough series against Vancouver in 2010 and San Jose in 2011, has been strong in goal. Doughty and Kopitar have given the Kings big, important minutes in all situations.

That quartet seems to have been strengthened by the previous two playoff shortcomings, and it also has been strengthened by the addition of players who weren’t around two years ago.

Second-line forwards Jeff Carter and Mike Richards reached the Stanley Cup Finals with Philadelphia two years ago. They lost to Chicago and Colin Fraser, who is now a fourth-line center for the Kings. Dustin Penner won the Cup with Anaheim in 2007. Willie Mitchell has a deep pool of playoff knowledge.

Mix in veterans already in place -- Rob Scuderi and Justin Williams are former Stanley Cup champions while Matt Greene and Jarret Stoll reached the Finals -- and the Kings, it seems, finally have a good mix of tested veterans and young players who are learning what postseason hockey is all about.

``It helps a lot,’’ Doughty said. ``The first time we played Vancouver, there were a bunch of us who had never even played in one playoff game. Adding those guys to our team, and a few of us having games in the playoffs in the last two years, it definitely helps a lot. When we go out there every night, if we got up by a few goals in the past, we kind of sat back and were maybe a little nervous to let (the other team) back in the game, and that’s why we allowed them to get back in it. This year, when we get up a few, we keep giving it to them, keep digging in. That’s why we’re winning.’’

It’s hard to put into words exactly what ``playoff hockey’’ means, but anyone who has played it -- or even watched it -- can identify it on sight. In a word, it’s ``intensity.’’ A young player can grow up playing big games in junior hockey, or in college or the AHL, but it all pales in comparison to NHL playoff hockey.

Two years ago, some of the Kings’ key players went into the playoffs blind. Now, they’ve seen some things.

``You know what to expect, with the level of play and how much every play means, every shot means,’’ Quick said. ``What you kind of gain in experience is stuff you can’t really put in words. Because if you could, then you’d be able to give guys experience without playing.

``When you find yourself in those situations, it’s finding confidence in yourself, that you’ve been there before. It’s something that, the only way you get that feeling is from being in situations like this.’’

There’s one other big difference for the Kings from two years ago: the man behind the bench.

Terry Murray took over the Kings in 2008 and helped transform a losing team into a winning team. He helped the organization build an identity, and his patient, defense-first approach helped the Kings end an eight-year playoff drought.

Last December, though, with the Kings underachieving, Murray was dismissed and replaced by Darryl Sutter. Sutter coached Calgary to the Finals in 2004, just as Murray coached Philadelphia to the Finals in 1997, but the coaches have few similarities beyond those lines on their respective resumes.

Murray was known for being steady and patient. He kept a young Kings team calm at critical moments. Sutter, though, brings intensity and urgency. The difference for the Kings now is that they’re no longer in ``learning’’ mode. They’re in ``winning’’ mode, and Sutter demands the best at all times.

``Just all year, he doesn’t allow you to take that breath and sit back,’’ Richards said. ``He’s always looking to move forward. No matter how well we play, there’s always three or four things that we can improve on. I think when you have a guy like that, it really allows you to push forward and do more things. You can never be satisfied with what you’ve done on the ice. There are always two or three things that you can get better at.

“He definitely lets you know when you need to.’’

If the Kings are able to eliminate the Canucks, it would be only their second playoff series win since the 1993 Campbell Conference Finals, and it would be an improbable one. The Kings entered the series as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and drew the Canucks, who won the Presidents’ Trophy.

These Kings can even draw from some previous experience in that area.  In 2006, Greene and Stoll helped the Edmonton Oilers, seeded eighth in the Western Conference, upset the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings in six games. There aren’t many parallels, Greene said, but the experience can’t hurt.

``It’s a different team, a different kind of scenario,’’ Greene said.

``The thing that you can draw on is that no one is really out. As long as you get into the playoffs, then you can cause some damage from there. You’ve got to have confidence in your team. I think that’s what we have right now. It’s a group that has been together, and we added some good pieces, with Richards and Carter, and we got Kopitar back this year. We’re confident in our team, but the only inspiration you draw from Edmonton is that it can happen.’’
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