LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A year ago, the unfancied Los Angeles Kings delivered their own unforgettable Cinderella story as they beat the odds en route to claiming the franchise’s first Stanley Cup.
They snuck into the National Hockey League’s postseason as an eighth seed and went on to beat the Western Conference’s top three teams before defeating the New Jersey Devils 4-2 in the best-of-seven Stanley Cup finals.
This season, they are seemingly at it again.
After fighting back from a stumbling start to the lockout-shortened regular season, the Kings have steadily got better and better as a fifth seed in the playoffs.
Though their offense has not always sparked, their defense has been typically gritty and goaltender Jonathan Quick appears to have regained the form that earned him the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player during last season’s playoffs.
Most importantly, the Kings have found a way to win games against all odds. On Thursday night, they scored twice in the last two minutes to stun the San Jose Sharks 4-3 and take a commanding 2-0 lead in their Western Conference semi-finals.
Kings captain Dustin Brown looked almost as shocked as his team’s bewildered but jubilant fans as he sat in front of his locker shortly after the final buzzer sounded.
“We didn’t play a great game tonight but we found a way to win,” he told reporters after Los Angeles scored two power-play goals in 22 seconds to edge the devastated Sharks.
”That’s the important thing. Two big power-play goals. We stayed with it. It’s a roller coaster, but when you go through the experience of everything we did last year, you keep your emotions in check.
“Two minutes left, down one, it’s about capitalizing. We’re happy with the result, but we have to play better. We can’t let it get to that situation every night.”
With the Kings on a five-on-three powerplay, Brown tied the score at 3-3 with a backhand shot at 18:17 of the third period to spark thunderous roars from a sellout crowd of 18,527 at Staples Center.
Moments later, center Trevor Lewis pounced on a loose puck from the left side of an open net for the go-ahead goal.
Kings center Anze Kopitar, who left the ice for a few minutes early in the third period after being cut above the lip by a flying puck, applauded his team’s gutsy effort after being outshot by the Sharks for much of Game Two.
“We realized it wasn’t our best effort, but sometimes good teams win when they don’t deserve it too,” the Slovenian forward said after Los Angeles had won their sixth straight playoff game. “We pulled it out ... and next time we want to make sure we’re not in a position like this.”
Kopitar, who had 20 stitches on the cut above his lip, knows the Kings face a daunting challenge at the infamous Shark Tank when the series shifts to San Jose for Game Three on Saturday.
“It will be electric,” he said. “That building gets pretty loud. A couple of years ago, I was in the stands when the guys were playing so I know how loud it can get. We got to get up there and try to win a game.”
The Kings opened the year just 3-5-2 but gradually got back to more consistent winning ways as they went 27-16-5 in the regular season with five wins in their last 10 games.
Seemingly built for the NHL season’s finish line rather than the starting block, Los Angeles are thriving in the white-knuckle pressure of the playoffs and head coach Darryl Sutter does not care how the wins come.
“You have to win a lot of different ways, I don’t think there is a consistent pattern to it at all,” he said after the Kings were outshot by the Sharks 27-8 over the first two periods of Game Two.
“I didn’t like how many penalties we took but our penalty killing did a good job. The power play came through for us but every game is different. We found a way.”
Editing by Frank Pingue