The Los Angeles Kings are back in the Stanley Cup Playoffs following a one-year hiatus and are poised to chase their third championship in five seasons.
Before that can happen, Los Angeles has its sights set on holding off the Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks to win the Pacific Division. The Kings haven't finished in first place since the days of Wayne Gretzky, when they won the Smythe Division in 1990-91.
Buoyed by its all-star nucleus of Anze Kopitar up front, Drew Doughty on defense and Jonathan Quick in goal, and with the inimitable Darryl Sutter behind the bench, the Kings have put together their most consistent regular season and are in position to challenge their record of 105 points in a season, set in 1974-75, their seventh year of existence.
They took another step toward achieving their goals with a 2-1 win Saturday against the Boston Bruins, combined with the Arizona Coyotes' 2-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Here are five reasons why the Kings clinched:
1. Rest and motivation
The 2014-15 Kings didn't have a terrible season by any means, going 40-27-15 for 95 points. But that was three points short of a playoff berth in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, and just more than six months removed from raising their second Stanley Cup banner, the Kings were packing their bags for an early summer.
Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. Between the two Cup runs in 2012 and 2014 and a trip to the Western Conference Final in 2013, they played 64 postseason games in addition to the combined 246 regular-season games over that span. Top players like Kopitar and Doughty admitted before the start of this season that the extra rest could prove beneficial.
"It felt good, even though it stinks to miss the playoffs," Kopitar said. "We kind of needed that to recharge and get away for a little longer period of time. You always feel like you're in a rush to get ready. Not this time.
"The sour taste from missing the playoffs is what drives us to do some damage this year."
2. Overtime heroics
The new 3-on-3 format apparently agrees with Los Angeles, which has won 11 of 14 games this season decided in the extra period.
Video: NYR@LAK: Kopitar tips OT winner past Lundqvist
Combined with the shootout, the Kings have played 18 games this season that have gone beyond regulation and picked up the extra point in 12. Contrast that to a season ago, when they were 3-15 in those situations (1-7 in overtime, 2-8 in shootouts). If they had managed an even 9-9 split, they would have breezed into the playoffs.
"We've been doing a good job of getting those chances when we have because the puck possession in the 3-on-3," forward Milan Lucic told LA Kings Insider earlier this month. "As you've seen from all the 3-on-3 play, puck possession is probably the biggest thing, and when you get those chances, you've got to make sure you score, and we've been bearing down on them. To be honest, that was one of the things we talked about early in the season, heading into those overtime games, is getting those points."
3. 'America's Best'
When Quick made 32 saves in a 5-0 win against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 14, he wasn't just shutting out the defending Cup champs. He also set an NHL record for most shutouts by a U.S.-born goalie with the 41st of his career, passing John Vanbiesbrouck and Frank Brimsek.
Quick is having his typical elite season, ranking second in the League in wins (37) and fourth in goals-against average (2.14). His .921 save percentage would be the second highest of his career. He has been a workhorse as usual -- he's second in the NHL in minutes played and tied for second with 58 games -- but with Jhonas Enroth earning Sutter's trust to the tune of 12 starts already and performing brilliantly at times (2.01 GAA, .930 save percentage), Quick won't sniff the career-high-tying 72 appearances he made last season.
Video: LAK@VAN: Quick sets American-born shutout record
4. The missing piece
The Kings acquired Lucic on June 26, sending the Bruins the No. 13 pick in the first round of the 2015 NHL Draft and goaltender Martin Jones.
Lucic, who had an eight-game point streak end Saturday against his former team, has provided a power-forward presence with a penchant for performing in big spots -- he lifted the Cup in 2011 with the Bruins and has 26 goals and 61 points in 96 postseason games. It's the type of resume the Kings needed with Justin Williams leaving to sign as a free agent with the Washington Capitals on July 1.
"I think he's given our top end of our forward group some size and some skill, and that's never a bad thing," Sutter told the Los Angeles Times on Thursday.
Video: LAK@CHI: Lucic picks the corner for an early 2-0 lead
5. Everyone playing their roles
The Kings' best players have stood out. Quick has been a fortress in goal, Kopitar is close to a point-per-game player (24 goals, 65 points in 70 games), and Doughty figures to again get consideration for the Norris Trophy, averaging the third-most minutes in the League (28:12) and playing dynamically at each end of the ice. Forward Tyler Toffoli leads Los Angeles with 26 goals, an NHL career-high.
The Kings didn't win the Cup twice by merely relying on its stars, though, and this version has its own share of complementary pieces.
Forward Vincent Lecavalier, acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 6, has revived his career with eight goals in 32 games. Forward Kris Versteeg, traded from the Carolina Hurricanes on Feb. 28, can fit in on the top line with Lucic and Kopitar, or play down in the lineup. And with veteran defenseman Matt Greene limited to three games because of a shoulder injury that required surgery, the Kings brought back 2012 Cup winner Rob Scuderi and added Luke Schenn for bottom-six depth.