LOS ANGELES – As the final seconds ticked away on the Los Angeles Kings' second-round sweep of the St. Louis Blues, Kings general manager Dean Lombardi had to be thinking one thing: I'm glad I didn't trade Dustin Brown.
Aside from the steel curtain that has been goaltender Jonathan Quick, no player has been more impactful in the Kings' march through these playoffs than Brown. Two more goals Sunday in a series-clinching 3-1 win over the Blues makes it six in these playoffs for Brown, whose days as a King seemed numbered only two months ago.
At the time, the Kings were underperforming, heading nowhere but their usual early start to summer vacation, and the acquisition of winger Jeff Carter and his rifle-quick shot made Brown expendable. Sure, he was the face of the franchise, but what's the value in that if the franchise keeps losing? Dumping Brown and sewing the 'C' onto Mike Richards' jersey didn't seem like much of a gamble given the alternative, which on Feb. 24 looked very much like an early departure in the playoffs, if the Kings even made it that far.
The rumors swirled, Brown heard them and basically had to wonder why, after 6 ½ years, the only team he'd known would dump him just like that.
"You never know if there's truth to it or not, and as a player it's in the back of your head regardless," Brown told Yahoo! Sports on Sunday. "It's one of those things you just have to deal with. You play with a chip on your shoulder.
"In saying that, when stuff's being said you gotta take a look at yourself in the mirror. I definitely didn't have the year I wanted until that point, and you kind of got to look at yourself in the mirror and get going."
Feb. 25: Brown posted a hat trick, his first multi-goal game of the season. Over a 10-game stretch beginning that day, Brown notched at least one point in every game and the Kings went 7-3.
From the dumps of late February to the delirium of early May, the pessimism that's morphed into optimism that the Kings can actually win the Stanley Cup hangs on the back of their captain. He's the one who drilled Henrik Sedin in the first round to let the heavily favored Vancouver Canucks know the team from L.A. had come to play; he's the one who checked St. Louis captain David Backes into his own bench in Game 3 of this series; he's the one who put L.A. in front in Game 4 with a genius goal late in the first period when he snapped a wrist shot through the legs of Alex Pietrangelo and past goaltender Brian Elliott to give his team a 2-1 lead; he's the one who scored the empty-netter with 25 seconds to go that sent the 18,000-plus inside Staples Center into a frenzy Sunday.
If he's the one who bore the brunt of the blame for the Kings' struggles early in the season, then he deserves a heavy hunk of the credit now for their advancing to the Western Conference Finals, somewhere the franchise hasn't been since a guy named Gretzky took them there in 1993.
"Ever since that day [Feb. 25], he's been, if not our best forward, one of our top forwards," said Drew Doughty, Brown's roommate on the road. "Without a doubt he's played great every game. Defensively he's hitting guys hard and he's putting up points. That's exactly what we need out of him. He's a great leader, and we're loving the work he's doing for us now."
The eighth-seeded Kings have now sent home the No. 1 seed (Vancouver) and the No. 2 seed (St. Louis). Awaiting them will either be the third-seeded Phoenix Coyotes or fourth-seeded Nashville Predators. Whichever team advances – the Coyotes hold a 3-1 lead, with Game 5 coming Monday night – may be facing the best team in these Stanley Cup Playoffs.
"They're the best team that we've played against," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "LA plays the way you have to play to win the Cup now. … I'm sure they've had stumbles along the way to figure it out, but it looks like to me they've figured it out."
All thanks to a trade they didn't make.
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