LOS ANGELES, Calif. - The crowd was dozens deep and hundreds wide, screaming and chanting and surrounding the Los Angeles Kings' cars as they drove home after writing another improbable chapter in the big, mostly empty book that holds their franchise history.
About 4,000 fans showed up at LAX early Wednesday morning to welcome the Western Conference champions back from Arizona. Even Game 5 hero Dustin Penner was awestruck.
"It was like driving down a hallway lined with human flesh," said Penner, who scored the overtime goal that sent the Kings to the Stanley Cup final. "You couldn't see anything except people. ... It's not something that anyone will forget ever on this Kings team. It's something you can only experience when you get to the Cup finals."
A remarkable story is unfolding in Los Angeles, and it's happening at the ideal time. Few NHL teams have ever peaked in the post-season more perfectly than the eighth-seeded Kings, and now they're four wins away from the franchise's first title.
After a regular season rocked by struggles, false starts and major changes, the eighth-seeded Kings have turned into the powerhouse they expected to be all season. Los Angeles needed only a league record-tying 14 playoff games to reach its first Stanley Cup final since 1993, outscoring their opponents 41-22 and culminating with a five-game win over the Coyotes.
The Kings replaced coach Terry Murray with Darryl Sutter near midseason. They struggled to score all season, only fixing their offence around the 65th game. They didn't even clinch a playoff berth until the day of their 81st game, blowing the Pacific Division title in the final week of the season.
But now the Kings have rampaged through the post-season in nearly unprecedented fashion. Not even the Kings will claim they saw it coming.
"Everybody came into the season thinking we could be the good team, the kind we are now," Penner said. "Especially the older guys thought the pieces to the puzzle were there. We just couldn't find a way to put it together. ... Everything lined up, the stars lined, and it came together at the right point of the season. We knew once we were in (the playoffs) that it was anybody's game."
Although captain Dustin Brown superstitiously didn't touch the Campbell Bowl during the trophy presentation in Glendale, the Kings have earned just the second conference title banner for their rather empty wall at Staples Center. They're hoping to add an even better trophy in the next few weeks—even while the thought still boggles many of their long-suffering fans' minds.
Although his shaggy beard and tooth-deficient smile evoke playoff hockey, Penner is an unlikely hero for the Kings after a horrific regular season featuring just 17 points and a minus-7 rating in 65 games. The bruising power forward already has a Stanley Cup ring from Anaheim in 2007, but hadn't really played well since joining Los Angeles midway through last season.
Ever since Sutter put him on a line with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, Penner has been the player he used to be, providing physical hitting and occasional scoring. Every member of that line contributed on the decisive goal, with Carter driving the net and Richards clearing out traffic through the slot before Penner calmed a bouncing puck and beat Phoenix's Mike Smith.
"The goal was bigger than me," said Penner, who scored in overtime for the first time in 12 career playoff OT games. "It had more to do with the team than me. I just happened to be the guy with the puck on his stick at that particular moment."
The Kings won't know their next opponent for at least a couple of days while the Rangers and Devils slug it out in the East, but a trip to the tri-state area is good news for Brown, who is from upstate New York, and All-Star goalie Jonathan Quick, who's from Connecticut.
Including Brown's no-touch acceptance of the Campbell Bowl, the Kings did little celebrating on the Phoenix ice, and not just because the Coyotes and their fans weren't exactly the best sports. The crowd threw trash at the Kings after Penner's winner, and Phoenix captain Shane Doan chirped at Brown in the handshake line about his unpenalized hit on Michal Rozsival moments before the game ended.
"It's an emotional time for everybody," Sutter said. "A lot of times there's handshakes done behind closed doors. Things happen behind closed doors, and we'll leave it at that. Shane Doan is an awesome captain and an awesome player, and I wish he was still playing, just not at our expense."
Leave it to the perpetually placid Quick to explain the Kings' cool heads on such a momentous occasion.
"It's a great accomplishment, but at the end of the day, there's still work to be done," said Quick, who allowed more than two goals in Game 5 for just the second time in the entire post-season.
"That was a great team effort to get to where we are right now," Quick added. "I couldn't be happier for this group of guys. Everybody has worked so hard over the past eight months. At the same time, we've got four more games that we want to win, so we're looking forward to see who we're going to play next week, and we're going to continue to work."