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Great Expectations

by Jon Rosen / Los Angeles Kings

Entering the playoffs as a six seed having tied a franchise record with 46 wins, the 2009-10 Los Angeles Kings were playoff-bound for the first time in eight seasons and drew the Vancouver Canucks, who had posted 103 points in hanging their second consecutive Northwest Division Champions banner.

It took six games for the Kings to fall in a looser series in which the teams combined for 43 goals, 16 of which were scored on the power play.

Though the core was mostly the same, though younger, it was a different group of players with a different identity and different ideals.

“I think that year, we were excited just to be there, and now it’s just another piece for this team,” Dustin Brown said. “The playoffs were a goal for us back then, and now it’s an expectation.”

Expectations. From listening to Brown and by an off-hand glance, they would appear to be raised from where they were four years ago. In speaking with coaches and players, there are different, often personal, interpretations.

If you talk to Darryl Sutter, the goal – not the “expectation” – is to make the playoffs.

“It’s very difficult to do that, first off. Half the league, 14 teams, are going home,” he said. “So it’s not an ‘expectation.’”

Jonathan Quick, on the other hand, references the high expectations he places on himself and his teammates.

“We’ve always had expectations of winning a Cup every year, so nothing has changed inside the locker room,” he said last month.

Willie Mitchell, an opponent at the time the Kings and Canucks met in the playoffs, is aware of the expectations the team had in the 2010 series – and used them, along with contract terms, as factors that influenced where he chose to sign as a free agent.

“This group in here thought they actually should’ve beaten Vancouver in that series,” Mitchell said. “But that belief that they thought they could have was part of a motivating factor for me to come here because I thought they played OK against Vancouver. I think they just actually at that time of the year thought they were a little bit better than what they were.”

“I think L.A. scored some timely goals to have some tight games but they weren’t quite as deep as maybe Vancouver was at that point in time. The expectation then was to get back to the postseason and be that young up-and-coming team that makes some noise, and then those things started to transpire, and I think when you start to get that up-trend, and you have a little bit of adversity, it actually helps you in the long run.”

That adversity followed, as it does with many young teams on the cusp of playoff emergence. Anze Kopitar’s injury preceded a commendably fought but ultimately unsuccessful playoff series against San Jose one year later in which the injury-ravaged Kings lacked puck luck and failed to win a game at home.

And then Los Angeles qualified for the playoffs for the third consecutive year in 2012. They met the President’s Trophy-winning Canucks as an eight seed, and, 16 wins later, Brown lifted the Stanley Cup on Staples Center ice. The following season, revenge was served to the Sharks in the form of a seven-game series win that launched the Kings into the Western Conference Final for the second consecutive year.

So it’s safe to say that the circumstances surrounding this year’s playoff run have certainly changed, while the “expectations” are an ambiguous intangible that offers ample leeway for personal interpretation.

“You know what it takes to win, but I think probably more important you know what you’re playing for,” Brown said.

“It’s kind of like a double-edged sword – you don’t really know what you’re playing for until you’ve won it and once you’ve experienced winning, getting knocked out has a greater meaning.”

Of the 23 players currently on the active roster, only Robyn Regehr, Marian Gaborik and Tanner Pearson were not with the Kings at the time of the 2012 run. Darryl Sutter has previously spoken of the benefit of having Manchester call-ups (a.k.a. the “Black Aces”) around the team during the playoffs, and Jake Muzzin – along with Martin Jones and Andrew Campbell – benefited from their experience that spring. Both Muzzin and Jones joined the on-ice celebration on June 11, 2012.

“There are definitely expectations with the team. We have pretty much the same core of guys the last two years,” Muzzin said. “There is the expectation for us to make some moves. I think it’s exciting and it’s a compliment to the guys in here being consistent and wanting to win and coming every night ready to play. The guys are excited for the playoffs. We know we have kind of a confident group in here and when we get in the playoffs, we’re comfortable. It’ll be an exciting time of the year.”

It is often said that this Kings team is a team that is “built” for the playoffs, and Muzzin’s reference of being “comfortable” at this time of the year is an evolution from four years ago, when as lofty as any expectations might have been, they were held by a core of players that had never qualified for the postseason together.

Those circumstances obviously don’t apply this year, and while certain elements of the team’s core have gained a shared experience and are hitting advanced stages of their prime – Brown, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards all turned 29 earlier this season – the team remains very young. This is especially prevalent on defense, where apart from the veteran consortium of Mitchell, Regehr and Matt Greene is the group of young defensemen, which includes 26-year-old Alec Martinez, 24-year-old Drew Doughty, 24-year-old Slava Voynov and the 25-year-old Muzzin.

Sutter has previously acknowledged that “We’ll go as those four go,” and the versatile 6-foot-3 Muzzin welcomes such a projection.

“As far as the young guys, we look to the older guys too,” said Muzzin, who has made strides in maximizing his skill set this season.

“I still learn stuff from Reg, Greener, and Mitchie all the time. It’s a challenge, and I think it is a kind of compliment as well. If we’re playing well, I think we can go deep. It’s exciting for us to have that challenge and see what we can do in the playoffs.”

For Mitchell, it’s a challenge the Kings will be well-prepared for.

“To win, you’ve got to play well, but you also get lucky, and when we made our run, we were pretty injury-free, right? We’re a little bit deeper, I’d say, now, and I think the expectation is hopefully we go through without any injuries, but if we have some, we’re going to be able to handle those maybe a little bit easier,” Mitchell said.

“We know the road’s not going to be 16-4. That was pretty exceptional. You’ve got to win it all different types of ways, and I think the expectation now is that we want to win a Stanley Cup. We’re one of those teams that we know our game plays well at this time of year. Everyone believes that, and when you believe as a hockey club, it can go a long ways. So I think that’s the expectation of the organization right now, is win now, and anything less than that – that son of a [gun] again – it’s a failure. That’s what we want to do.”

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