When the Kings take the ice Thursday for Game 6 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series with the Edmonton Oilers, they’ll have a chance to do something the team hasn’t done in eight years: win a postseason series.
“Obviously, we’re very excited where we’re at right now,” said winger Adrian Kempe, who brought the team to the brink of advancing with the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 5. “Our confidence is good right now.”
They also have an unexpected advantage in Game 6. The Oilers will be without defenseman Darnell Nurse, who has been suspended one game for headbutting Kings center Phillip Danault late in the second period of Game 5.
No penalty was called on the play, but after the NHL’s department of player safety reviewed the incident, it was determined the headbutt was delivered with intent to injure.
Oilers forward Zack Kassian also has been fined $5,000 for cross-checking Sean Durzi during Game 5. That’s the maximum permissible penalty under the collective bargaining agreement. Kassian had been assessed a minor penalty in the second period.
Whether or not the Kings are able close the deal, they’ve already accomplished more in this playoff series than they have in any postseason since last winning the Stanley Cup.
With three victories over the Oilers, they have more than doubled their postseason wins from the last eight years combined. And their Game 4 victory at Crypto.com Arena, where they’ll play Thursday, was their first home playoff win since that 2014 championship season.
But the transformation goes well beyond those accomplishments because these Kings have changed more than just postseason results. They’ve changed expectations.
Although the team began with the least-experienced and fourth-youngest roster in the playoffs, it has come of age quickly. Just three players from the last Stanley Cup team — captain Anze Kopitar, goaltender Jonathan Quick and forward Dustin Brown — have played in this series. The Kings have made the transition to a younger, quicker team on the fly.
Of the 15 goals scored against the Oilers, only one has come from a player older than 28. Kempe, 25, has two. So does Carl Grundstrom, 24, one of eight Kings playing in the postseason for the first time.
Entering the season, the team’s goal was simply to qualify for the playoffs. Even that modest objective was considered ambitious for a team that had finished as high as fourth in the Pacific Division just once in the last five seasons.
Now it’s a win away from the Western Conference semifinals, and it will have two chances to get there — in Game 6 Thursday and Game 7 on Saturday in Edmonton, if necessary. If the Kings advance, they would play the winner of the Calgary-Dallas series.
Yet, after Tuesday’s win, the Kings made it clear that getting close isn’t the same as getting there.
“It’s never enough. It’s never going to be enough,” said Danault, who is in his first season with the Kings. “You don’t want to be just that team that goes to the playoffs. We want to actually achieve some stuff, some good things.”
The young Kings showed in Game 5 they certainly don’t lack confidence. Playing before a loud, unfriendly crowd in Edmonton, they twice held two-goal leads, only to see the Oilers score three times in the third period — twice on power plays and once shorthanded — to send the game to overtime.
But Kempe needed just 72 seconds of the extra period to quiet the crowd with his second goal of the night and send the Kings back to Los Angeles with a 3-2 series lead.
“We’ve shown all year that we have great identity as a team,” Kempe said. “It doesn’t matter if we’re down three goals or if we’re up and teams come back on us. We always have that mindset that we’ve got to reset.”
The Kings’ current challenge is to put that emotional win behind them and focus on Thursday, when they’ll put their glass slippers on once again and try to extend their Cinderella playoff run to the second round. What they won’t be doing, coach Todd McLellan said, is resting on their laurels.
The Kings’ special teams have been atrocious, for example, with seven of Edmonton’s 21 goals in the series coming on power plays. Two others have come short-handed. Meanwhile, just two of the Kings’ 15 scores have come with a man advantage.
So although this team already has much to celebrate, it has much more left to achieve.
“We need to get better, not keep doing what we’re doing,” McLellan said. “It’s got to go up in some areas. We’ve got to clean up clean some things up. We have to find ways to be better.”