LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Mason Brown has been wearing his Los Angeles Kings jersey every day for about two weeks now. He doesn’t even take it off when he goes to school.
And Kings captain Dustin Brown’s 3-year-old son isn’t the only crazy hockey fan in Southern California these days.
Nineteen years after Wayne Gretzky and Luc Robitaille turned Hollywood into a hockey town, Mason’s dad and goalie Jonathan Quick are doing it again.
The eighth-seeded Kings are the first team in the conference finals after a stunning nine-game evisceration of Vancouver and St. Louis, the West’s top two teams. Buzz is building all around town for the Kings, who are halfway to hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time in franchise history.
“I think everyone is pretty excited right now,” Brown said Monday while spending a rare day off with his family.
Los Angeles has advanced this far in the post-season only once before in 44 seasons since the club joined the NHL in the Second Six expansion in 1967. Gretzky’s best team reached the 1993 Stanley Cup finals before losing to Montreal, and the Kings had won just one playoff series since.
Yet the current Kings aren’t content with what they’ve already done in the first two rounds. Their roster is a balanced mix of homegrown talent and imported veterans with lengthy playoff histories, and they’ve meshed together in a near-flawless effort through the first month of the post-season, crediting that momentum to a late-season surge just to make the playoffs.
“It’s been a long haul, and we’ve been through a lot,” said Jarret Stoll, who joined the Kings four years ago in a trade with Edmonton. “There are guys who have been here even longer than me, and we’ve been through two first-round exits, some great regular seasons, and building something special here. Everything is coming together at the right time. Things are clicking, but we’re only halfway there.”
While Brown, Quick and Drew Doughty came up through the Kings organization, other Kings have extensive playoff experience—including Dustin Penner, who won it all across town as a 24-year-old with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007.
“For me and the guys who have made long playoff runs before and won the Cup, we all help out in a similar fashion,” Penner said. “I see a lot of similarities between the Ducks’ run and this run we’re currently on. There’s still eight more wins to go, but the mentality and focus of the team, the way in practice we’re moving the puck, it’s just really confident, and I think that’s a byproduct of our success. We’ve all bought in, and you can tell by the way we play.”
Los Angeles’ confluence of sports and entertainment is firmly behind the Kings. Although they can’t match the Lakers for celebrity magnetism, they regularly get a wide variety of stars in their stands ranging from Tom Hanks and Kurt Russell to Rob Zombie and Alyssa Milano.
Lakers greats Magic Johnson and Kobe Bryant, Dodgers stars Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, and Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan all appeared in promotional videos to pump up the Kings’ crowd during the second round. “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone frequently whip out short animations for the Staples Center scoreboard in which Cartman and his buddies taunt the Kings’ opponents—even running over Vancouver’s Green Men with a Zamboni in the first round.
The Stanley Cup itself also spent time in Hollywood in recent weeks during its usual globetrotting tour, making visits to the sets of “Glee” and “Bones” for photos with hockey-loving actors Cory Monteith and David Boreanaz, among others.
The Kings are the reason for this puck frenzy: They’re just the second team in club history to win two series in the same post-season, and they’re the first to sweep a best-of-seven series. Los Angeles is the first No. 8 seed to beat the top two seeds in the same playoffs, and just the third No. 8 seed ever to get beyond the second round.
The Kings utterly dominated the Blues, who had 109 points and the NHL’s third-best record in the regular season. Los Angeles only trailed for 7:42 in the entire series—and that was in the first period of Game 1.
“It’s a long time, and we’re really happy with what we’ve achieved so far, but at the same time, we’re not done,” said Doughty, who learned all about Los Angeles’ meagre playoff history while growing up as a Kings fan in Ontario. “We knew all along we had the team to do it. Right now we’re playing with a ton of confidence, and every single guy is having fun and feeling part of the team. That’s what you need in the playoffs.”
Doughty was singled out for praise from Blues coach Ken Hitchcock, who called him the best player in the series before Game 4. The young, puck-moving defenceman who held out for his mammoth $56 million contract in the preseason led the Kings with more than 23 minutes of ice time in the clincher.
Not everything is going smoothly for the Kings. Their power play is in a 1-for-37 slump since early in the first round, failing to generate consistent scoring chances.
But with Quick in the net and Brown leading a much-improved offence, the Kings have every ingredient to keep going—and their stars will only keep growing.
“It’s definitely a new thing for me,” centre Anze Kopitar said. “I don’t think I’ve been excited like this for a long time. The last thing I can compare to this was probably my draft day, but this definitely tops it off because it’s more, and we’re still going.”