Going back to the beginning of the 2011-12 season, it was common to see knowledgeable hockey people pick the Los Angeles Kings to represent the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Final.
But no one could have predicted the road they would take to get there.
They suffered through an up-and-down regular season that included the dismissal of defensive-minded coach Terry Murray. His replacement, Darryl Sutter, installed a more up-tempo attack.
The result was a 25-13-11 record under Sutter that got the Kings into the playoff chase, but back-to-back losses to end the regular season left them with the No. 8 seed.
Something happened in the four days between the end of the regular season and the start of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Kings have played unlike any eighth seed before them, rampaging their way through the Western Conference to reach the Stanley Cup Final in just 14 games.
They're the first eighth seed to reach the Final since the Edmonton Oilers in 2006, but it took them 17 games to get there. This year's Kings became just the seventh team since 1987, when all series were made best-of-seven games, to reach the Cup Final in 14 games; no team has done it in fewer games.
COYOTES VS. KINGS
Kings advance to Cup Final with OT win
By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer Dustin Penner scored at 17:42 of overtime to give the Kings a 4-3 victory against the Coyotes, completing a five-game triumph in the Western Conference Finals and putting them into the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993. READ MORE ›
They've eliminated, in order, the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in the West, taken 3-0 leads in all three series and have won all eight games on the road in the playoffs, including elimination games in Vancouver and Phoenix. And in a postseason that has seen 22 of 78 games go to overtime (28.2 percent), the Kings have played beyond regulation just twice -- the series clinchers against the Canucks and Coyotes.
Here's a game-by-game look back at the Kings' road to the Stanley Cup Final:
With the score tied 2-2 late in the third period, Mike Richards intercepted an Alexander Edler pass in the Vancouver zone and threw a diagonal pass through the zone intended for Jeff Carter. The puck was behind Carter, but bounced off his heel right to Dustin Penner, who scored with 3:14 left in regulation. Kings captain Dustin Brown added an empty-net goal to give them the 1-0 series lead.
"We got a fortunate bounce on my goal, but we worked hard for 60 minutes tonight and it worked out for us," Penner said.
Brown tied an NHL record with a pair of shorthanded goals, the second coming at 5:17 of the second period, snapping a 1-1 tie and holding up as the game-winning goal. Brown also had an assist, five shots on goal, three hits and three takeaways in 19:29 of ice time.
When asked by NHL.com to describe Brown's performance, linemate Anze Kopitar said, "English is my second language, I can't find enough [words]."
Brown scored his fourth goal of the series, and goalie Jonathan Quick made the lead hold up, stopping all 41 shots Vancouver threw at him. He shut down all five Vancouver power plays, including a 43-second two-man advantage in the second period.
The win put the Kings on the brink of winning just their second playoff series since Wayne Gretzky led the team to the 1993 Stanley Cup Final.
Goalie - LAK
GAA: 1.54 | SVP: 0.946
"Going into the series, does this group believe we could have beat them? Definitely," Brown said. "We never thought we were going be up 3-0 in this series against a team that's pretty well dominated this League for the last two years. In saying that, it's three games. It takes four to win."
The Canucks got Daniel Sedin back in the lineup, but it was his brother, Henrik, who did the damage, scoring a pair of goals as Vancouver remained alive in the series. Cory Schneider, who replaced Roberto Luongo in net for Game 3, made 43 saves, outplaying Quick, who let in three goals on 30 shots.
Brad Richardson skated between three Canucks to bang in a puck in front to tie the game early in the third, and when Vancouver's Dan Hamhuis turned a puck over in the neutral zone, Jarret Stoll pounced on it and beat Schneider over his blocker 4:21 into overtime for the series-clinching goal.
It marked the first time since 2001 the Kings had won a playoff series, and made them just the 10th eighth seed to win a playoff series -- the sixth to upset a Presidents' Trophy winner.
"It's been a long road for a lot of guys in here that have been in this organization and put in a lot of time," Brown said. "Just coming together as a group and to finally take a -- this is just one step -- but to take a step in this playoff atmosphere is huge for this team. I'm just proud of this group."
David Backes opened the scoring, putting the Kings down on the road for the first time, but the deficit lasted just 7:42, as rookie defenseman Slava Voynov scored late in the first. Then Matt Greene, with 1:03 left in the second period, broke the tie when he followed a Brown shorthanded rush by shoveling the rebound past Blues goalie Brian Elliott for his first career playoff goal.
Kopitar scored twice in a four-goal first-period blistering. Richards started the scoring just 31 seconds into the game when Penner took the puck away from the Blues' Kevin Shattenkirk in the corner in the St. Louis end and skated in front. Elliott stopped his attempt, but Richards scored on the rebound to start the rout.
"This is the best time to play for sure," Richards said. "It's fun, it's intense. This is what you play for. We have 82 warm-up games to play before the playoffs and you want to make the most of it when you get here."
The Kings stole the momentum when Dwight King sneaked behind the St. Louis defense, took a long pass from Greene and scored 40 seconds after Chris Stewart had tied the game for the Blues. Richards and Drew Doughty added insurance goals, and the Kings limited the Blues to just 20 shots on Quick.
"It's one of those things where we play a hard, physical game," Brown said of his team, which out-hit the Blues 46-39. "We have everyone being physical, bumping. When you have 20 guys doing that to you for 60 minutes, it can be a frustrating game. We've done it for three games. Now it's important to do it for a fourth game. We have a stranglehold on this series. Now it's having that killer instinct."
Brown scored two more goals, including the game-winner with 1:43 left in the first period, as the Kings advanced to the conference finals for the first time since 1993. Quick made 23 saves, and Los Angeles' penalty killers did the job again, shutting down the Blues on three power plays, and killing off all 19 St. Louis advantages in the series.
"We knew we had all the ingredients in here to make something special happen, and it's coming together," Stoll said. "But we're only halfway there. We got a long ways to go yet. But we're getting closer. Anytime you knock off a team the caliber of the St. Louis Blues, you're doing something right."
A week of rest didn't slow the Kings, who put 47 shots on Phoenix goalie Mike Smith and got a pair of goals from King, but it was Brown who again played the hero. Taking a long pass from Voynov, he beat Smith 2:11 into the third period for his second-straight game-winning goal.
Despite allowing a goal from center ice, Quick stopped 25 shots as the Kings won Game 1 for the third straight series, and improved to 6-0 on the road.
Carter had his first playoff hat trick and Quick stopped all 24 shots as the Kings skated off with their a League record-tying seventh straight road win in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"We really want it right now," Penner told NHL.com. "We want the first goal. We want the next goal. It's that intensity and that passion that drives us. It's that good type of fear that stops you from letting games get away from you and continues to push you forward. We use that fear of losing to motivate us as opposed to shrinking to it."
The Coyotes scored first for the first time in the series, getting a Daymond Langkow goal just 1:03 into the second. The lead didn't last long, as Kopitar answered just 2:07 later, and then King pulled a puck off the corner in the Phoenix end and snapped a shot over Mike Smith's glove 1:47 into the third period.
"It's exciting, I think for everyone in here," Brown said of his team, which took its third straight 3-0 series lead. "There's a lot of guys that haven't experienced this and a lot of guys that have. The thing that's made us successful as a team is handling that success. We've put ourselves up 3-0 again. It's not only an opportunity but now a responsibility to prepare ourselves to have a good game."
Phoenix's Shane Doan scored twice and Smith made 36 saves as the Kings saw their eight-game playoff win streak snapped. The Kings went 0-for-6 on the power play and saw their streak of 31 straight successful penalties killed snapped.
"We had our opportunities on the power play and we didn't cash in," Kopitar said. "We lost the special teams battle tonight and we have to make sure that we correct that on Tuesday."
Penner, maligned during the regular season, sent the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final when he scored with 2:18 left in overtime, beating Smith from between the hash marks off a Carter rebound.
"It is pretty exciting," Brown said. "There are a few guys in here that have been there and had the opportunity, but a lot of guys haven’t. It is what you play for."
Added Doughty: "I'm so excited, but at the same time we're going to celebrate tonight and today and enjoy it. Tomorrow, we're right back at it. We're in the Stanley Cup [Final]. That's what we've dreamt of our whole lives and what we've worked for [since the] summer."
Contact Adam Kimelman at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK