EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) — For 65 scoreless minutes on March 22, the Los Angeles Kings matched powerful St. Louis in a tight-checking, furiously paced game. When the Blues' bus rolled away from Staples Center that night after a shootout loss, coach Ken Hitchcock remembers sharing a portentous thought with his assistants.
"Man, whoever gets that team in the playoffs has got their hands full," Hitchcock recalled Friday.
The eighth-seeded Kings' unlikely emergence as a playoff steamroller isn't catching the Blues by surprise, but St. Louis still hasn't been able to avoid getting flattened.
After largely dominating the first three games of the second-round series, Los Angeles could finish a stunning sweep of second-seeded St. Louis on Sunday.
"We're a confident group right now," Kings captain Dustin Brown said after a team meeting at their training complex. "We always thought we had a good team, but now we're playing to our capabilities. We have a lot of guys elevating their level of play. We have everyone on board."
With their first conference finals trip since 1993 in sight, the Kings don't mind acknowledging they're late-bloomers who didn't even begin to realize their ample preseason potential until coach Darryl Sutter replaced Terry Murray before Christmas. Los Angeles' long-slumbering offense finally came to life around the trade deadline, and the Kings have been building to this near-perfect peak — a 7-1 run through the playoffs to date, starting with an emphatic elimination of Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver.
While the NHL's third-best regular season team still holds out hope of a comeback, St. Louis realizes the Kings have found the right combination of coaching and motivation to reach new superlatives.
"When the races were on, everybody that watched the West saw this coming around (Game) 65, 66," Hitchcock said, referring to the games when Los Angeles began an 11-4-1 run through March. "We all saw this coming, so it's not surprising. They're a really mature, veteran group back there, and they've got a great goalie. Nothing is easy. It's very difficult."
The Kings won Game 3 on Thursday night 4-2, extending this run of fundamentally excellent hockey. In the entire series, Los Angeles has only trailed the Blues for a 7:42 stretch of the first period of Game 1.
Goaltending has been a major factor. Kings All-Star Jonathan Quick is soundly outplaying Brian Elliott, whose nine goals allowed in the last two games comprise his worst stretch of the season.
But the Kings' entire game plan has worked against both Vancouver and St. Louis, who dominated the West throughout the regular season. Los Angeles is getting balanced scoring from a roster that struggled to find the net for the first five months, and the defense has been excellent in front of Quick — particularly when Los Angeles is playing with a lead against the Blues, who "aren't built for chasing games," according to Hitchcock.