EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - For 65 scoreless minutes on March 22, the Los Angeles Kings matched powerful St. Louis in a tight-checking, furiously paced game. When the Blues' bus rolled away from Staples Center that night after a shootout loss, coach Ken Hitchcock remembers sharing a portentous thought with his assistants.
"Man, whoever gets that team in the playoffs has got their hands full," Hitchcock recalled Friday.
The eighth-seeded Kings' unlikely emergence as a playoff steamroller isn't catching the Blues by surprise, but St. Louis still hasn't been able to avoid getting flattened.
After largely dominating the first three games of the second-round series, Los Angeles could finish a stunning sweep of second-seeded St. Louis on Sunday.
"We're a confident group right now," Kings captain Dustin Brown said after a team meeting at their training complex. "We always thought we had a good team, but now we're playing to our capabilities. We have a lot of guys elevating their level of play. We have everyone on board."
With their first conference finals trip since 1993 in sight, the Kings don't mind acknowledging they're late-bloomers who didn't even begin to realize their ample preseason potential until coach Darryl Sutter replaced Terry Murray before Christmas. Los Angeles' long-slumbering offence finally came to life around the trade deadline, and the Kings have been building to this near-perfect peak ??? a 7-1 run through the playoffs to date, starting with an emphatic elimination of Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver.
While the NHL's third-best regular season team still holds out hope of a comeback, St. Louis realizes the Kings have found the right combination of coaching and motivation to reach new superlatives.
"When the races were on, everybody that watched the West saw this coming around (Game) 65, 66," Hitchcock said, referring to the games when Los Angeles began an 11-4-1 run through March. "We all saw this coming, so it's not surprising. They're a really mature, veteran group back there, and they've got a great goalie. Nothing is easy. It's very difficult."
The Kings won Game 3 on Thursday night 4-2, extending this run of fundamentally excellent hockey. In the entire series, Los Angeles has only trailed the Blues for a 7:42 stretch of the first period of Game 1.
Goaltending has been a major factor. Kings All-Star Jonathan Quick is soundly outplaying Brian Elliott, whose nine goals allowed in the last two games comprise his worst stretch of the season.
But the Kings' entire game plan has worked against both Vancouver and St. Louis, who dominated the West throughout the regular season. Los Angeles is getting balanced scoring from a roster that struggled to find the net for the first five months, and the defence has been excellent in front of Quick ??? particularly when Los Angeles is playing with a lead against the Blues, who "aren't built for chasing games," according to Hitchcock.
"Everything is clean," Hitchcock added. "They don't give you any odd-man rushes. They don't give you any time and space. You've got to fight through it, and if you're not willing to earn it on a shift-by-shift basis, you're going to get pushed out. They did it against a very good team in Vancouver, and they were able to create a lot of shots. We've been able to negate them offensively a little bit, but we've not been able to create much offensively at all."
Although defenceman Barret Jackman think the Blues "definitely have to be desperate" in Game 4, frustration isn't visibly building in the Blues, who are making just their second playoff appearance since 2004. St. Louis was in a similar underachieving funk until Hitchcock replaced Davis Payne 13 games in, and the Blues know they still have the talent to get the series back home for Game 5.
"I think we're getting done to us what we've done to teams all year," Hitchcock said. "It's how do we react to this now? We have to have a better reaction and learn to fight through this stuff. I think we've gotten discouraged at times, and got off the plan at times because of it. The lesson is, this is what we look like, and we're getting it done to us at a very high level, and we've got to react better."
The Kings don't think they're playing perfect hockey, but they're comfortable talking about how well they're playing. They're even enjoying themselves a bit: Defenceman Drew Doughty, a diehard Toronto Blue Jays fan, planned to take Friday night off catch the Jays' visit to Anaheim against the Los Angeles Angels.
The Kings struggled to score through most of the regular season, but they've produced 24 goals in eight playoff games. Los Angeles has 12 goals in just three games against St. Louis, easily the NHL's best defensive team in the regular season.
"Right now we're getting scoring, and that's something that took us a while to figure out during the year," defenceman Matt Greene said. "It's been do-or-die for a long time for us. We always believed in ourselves, and now we're trying to keep it at an even keel."
Even Greene chipped in with an exceptional outlet pass setting up rookie Dwight King's goal in Game 3. Greene has a point in every game in the series after scoring just 15 in the regular season.
"Yeah, that's an accident," Greene deadpanned.