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Kings GM says defense-first plan key to success

by Curtis Zupke

Dean Lombardi is known for analyzing, almost to a fault, every aspect of the Los Angeles Kings, including those minute details that make the difference between an early summer and a long spring. So it wasn't difficult to imagine the inner scrutiny he went through when he watched Game 7 of the Western Conference Final.

Lombardi, in his eighth season as Kings general manager, saw Los Angeles erase deficits of 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 before beating the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime to cap arguably the best Stanley Cup Playoff series in recent memory.

"Every step they take [there are] so many challenges," Lombardi said. "Certainly that series was a different challenge than they've met in the playoffs. It doesn't mean other ones weren't incredibly difficult. This one probably took on a different flavor because you're taking on the Stanley Cup champion. You're really happy for those players because you know how much they put into it and how much they care."

Lombardi did a conference call with a handful of local reporters Monday ahead of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the New York Rangers on Wednesday at Staples Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS). This is the Kings' second Final in three seasons, an impressive achievement in the salary-cap era and the continued payoff for the blueprint that Lombardi drew up when he arrived in Los Angeles in April 2006.

The Kings are playing into June for the third straight season after doing so once in their first 44 years of existence. They are 9-1 in their past 10 playoff series, and their 59 postseason games since 2012 are the most in the NHL.

After the Kings became the first team to win three straight Game 7s to get to the Final, they are in position to bring a second Cup to Los Angeles to match the Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils for most this century. Lombardi, who tends to second-guess himself, couldn't deny that his defense-first plan has gone as he had hoped.

"Well, you certainly like to think so," he said. "Talking to you five, six years ago was part of why we tried to do it this way … the affirmation of sustainability was there last night. It's something that we tried to do, and I think we're on the right track.

"It's a very different challenge. Ultimately it comes down to keeping your pedal to the metal. We're positioned to do that, but if we let up one second, it could certainly break itself … it still comes down to those players."

Lombardi credited coach Darryl Sutter for perhaps Sutter's best coaching job yet. The Kings got to the playoffs despite ineffective regular seasons from captain Dustin Brown and Mike Richards and managed through the Western Conference Second Round series against the Anaheim Ducks without defensemen Willie Mitchell and Robyn Regehr.

Los Angeles was forgotten after it faced a 3-0 first-round series deficit against the San Jose Sharks. Lombardi said Sutter and his coaching staff compartmentalized after a disastrous Games 1 and 2 of that series and focused on correcting their defensive errors.

"They were divorced of any emotion and said, 'What is happening here?'" Lombardi said.

The Kings erased a 3-2 series deficit against the Ducks and didn't waver when the Blackhawks won Games 5 and 6 to force Game 7 in its building. Their players are a combined 70-7 in career Game 7s. Lombardi had a hand in building the roster that could stay strong through such adversity.

"Sounds simple, but it isn't," Lombardi said. "What it all comes down to is [caring]. They care about the right things, and they care about each other. This goes back to when Darryl and I were in San Jose. It's a feel type thing. They're not choir boys, but they have the wherewithal to be great teammates. Again, it comes down to a simple formula for caring, then you go from there."

During the 2011-12 season, many observers wondered how good the Kings would be if they gave goalie Jonathan Quick scoring support. They averaged 2.85 goals a game in those playoffs. This season, Los Angeles leads the NHL with 3.48 goals a game in the postseason, partly because of the addition of left wing Marian Gaborik and the development of forwards Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli.

But Lombardi built the Kings on defense, and he said that's ultimately the common thread, whether it was plugging in defenseman Jeff Schultz or getting confirmation that Gaborik really is a two-way forward. The Kings still have five of the six starting defensemen they used exclusively during the 2012 Cup run. Add in offense and Los Angeles is one tough out.

Lombardi still sees them shaping into form.

"There is still some work to be done, if you're going to be where you want to be," he said. "The object is to be tops in all areas … it starts from the back out. To be able to put all the pieces together all at once … we can score goals here, but we still have to maintain that identity where we don't get scored on."

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