LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles will forever be the Lakers' town, but that doesn't mean expectations for the Kings are any lower. Not anymore, anyway.
Things changed two years ago when Dustin Brown hoisted the Stanley Cup toward the Staples Center rafters, where 16 yellow-and-purple championship banners hung. Soon a black-and-silver one would join them, the long-suffering franchise's first.
And with that one came a new expectation: Stanley Cup or bust.
No longer was a berth in the playoffs a consolation, not with a core that includes one of the game's best centers (Anze Kopitar), best defensemen (Drew Doughty) and best goaltenders (Jonathan Quick).
That the Kings won it all in 2012 was surprising only in that they did it as an eighth seed. Their talent was better than that, and it finally showed. And when it did, well, it was clear: the team was built to win, and not just once.
So here they are again, on the cusp of moving on or going home – a lame consolation prize that will end up in the circular file or a shot to dethrone the defending champs.
That's what will be on the line Friday night in Anaheim, after the Kings survived yet another elimination game – that's five now in these playoffs – beating the Ducks 2-1 Wednesday to force a Game 7.
The winner gets Chicago in the Western Conference final.
Exciting? For sure, Game 7s tend to do that. Nerve-wracking? Maybe, this is what they dream about. Worth the streamers that inexplicably fell from the Staples Center rafters Wednesday night after the Kings survived a final-seconds flurry from the Ducks? Hardly.
"Playoffs were our expectation, probably, and now it's not really an expectation, it's a stepping stone," Brown said after the win.
"We've kind of changed the culture of this organization over the last four or five years, one by getting the right guys in the room and staying together. From that it builds, and you get greater expectations every year. And once you've kind of gone to the top, it kind of changes your view of what you're actually playing for."
The Kings captain said it back in 2012, minutes after winning the Cup, that once you've felt the thrill of victory, you want more. Seeking another high, though, this is not. This is confidence; this is experience; this is how you go 0-3 down in a series then rally to win it.
Beating San Jose in Round 1 after trailing 3-0 was crazy and typical – crazy in that who does that? Typical in that the Kings are nothing if not streaky.
L.A. knows they're good, and they are – just not always. It's why they went into those 2012 playoffs as the lowest seed in the West, and why they'll be on the road Friday night.
It's also why they steamrolled through those 2012 playoffs with an unthinkable 16-4 record, and have already won on the road in these playoffs, at San Jose, in a Game 7.
"It's exciting to play in them, but you don't obviously want to be in these games every series," Brown said. "We, as a team, have found ways to make it very hard on ourselves. It's a double-edged sword that we have that resiliency and the guys in here to get the job done and climb out of holes."
They avoided all deficits Wednesday, taking a 1-0 lead midway through the first period when Jake Muzzin's flick off a Kopitar pass beat John Gibson. Trevor Lewis made it 2-0 in the second when he beat Gibson between the pads – a truly bad goal on Gibson's' part.
Anaheim trimmed the margin early in the third when Kyle Palmieri's laser-like wrap around made Quick look slow.
While the Kings tend to lean on the brilliance of Quick when the goals don't come, this wasn't one of those nights. He faced just 23 shots, this in a game where the Ducks had five power plays.
The flurry in the final seconds with the Ducks employing an extra attacker left Quick splayed desperately in front of his net, but the puck out of it – the horn coming none too quickly.
Afterwards Kings coach Darryl Sutter explained in his own Bill Belichickian manner that his team, winners of eight fewer games than the Ducks during the regular season, is a steep underdog heading into Friday night's Game 7 in Anaheim. He said he's told his boys that on multiple occasions.
"We talk about it all the time," he said.
It's hard to sell the Kings as underdogs anymore, though. Maybe on a thin margin in Vegas, but that's about it. This is a changed franchise altered by a group of players who doesn't just think they can win; they know they can.
"Everyone expects us to win games, but no one puts more pressure on themselves than us as a team," Doughty said. "Nothing's going to stop us. We're just a close-knit team that wants nothing more than to be another Stanley Cup champion."
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