How The Kings Became Cup Contenders.

The low-seeded LA Kings are on the verge of becoming Stanley Cup Finalists. Here’s a look at the contributing factors.

Since the 2009-10 season, expectations among NHL observers were the Los Angeles Kings were a team on the verge of becoming one of the league’s top teams, about to join the ranks of Stanley Cup contenders.

With a core of rising stars like goaltender Jonathan Quick, defenseman Drew Doughty, and forwards Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown, and having added forward Mike Richards last summer, the Kings were expected to once again flirt with 100-points this season and have little difficulty clinching a playoff berth.

Yet by mid-season, the Kings weren’t even in playoff contention, resulting in Darryl Sutter replacing Terry Murray as head coach. While among the better defensive teams in the league, their offense at that time was the worst in the league. Many pundits believe if not for Quick’s outstanding performance, the Kings would’ve slid much further down the standings.

Though their play improved in the second half, the Kings by late-February were locked in a desperate struggle with Dallas, Calgary and Colorado for one of the final berths in the Conference, spurring GM Dean Lombardi to bolster the offense by trading defenseman Jack Johnson to Columbus for winger Jeff Carter.

Things were so bad that, the weekend prior to the trade deadline, rumors emerged Lombardi was entertaining trade offers for Brown, which the Kings GM subsequently denied.

Ultimately, the Kings would rally down the stretch, finishing 8th overall in the Western conference, and the third-lowest seed overall in the league. Their offense, meanwhile, made marginal improvement, finishing second-lowest in the league.

Brown’s performance significantly improved since the trade rumors, Quick, of course, remained among the league’s elite goalies (earning a Vezina nomination for his efforts), Doughty’s play improved following a slow first half after missing training camp to a contract holdout, and leading scorer Kopitar – who missed last season’s playoffs with an ankle injury – was healthy for this year’s playoffs.

Still, their lack of offensive production, which wasn’t significantly boosted by the addition of Carter, was considered a serious impediment entering this year’s playoffs.

Considering their first round opponents were the Vancouver Canucks, 2011 Stanley Cup finalists and consecutive winners of the President’s Trophy as the team with the best regular season record, few gave the Kings much of a chance.

By late-May, however, the Kings had not upset the heavily favored Canucks in five games, but swept the St. Louis Blues, who had the second-best record in the Western Conference and third-best overall in the league.

Now, in the Western Conference Final, theyare on the verge of eliminating the Phoenix Coyotes to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

It’s easy to call what the Kings have done to be “upsets”, but it’s actually more a case of a promising team finally playing up to overdue expectations at the right time.

Several factors have combined for their stunning performance this spring.

Quick carried over his Vezina-nominated regular season performance into this post-season, out-duelling Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, St. Louis’ Brian Elliott and Phoenix’s Mike Smith.

Their top scorers – Kopitar, Brown, Richards, Carter, Doughty and Justin Williams – have been at their best. Brown and Kopitar, in particular, have been notable for their consistency, while the former has been earning rave reviews for leadership and inspired play, outshining Quick as the team’s MVP this spring.

Even Dustin Penner, much-maligned for his poor play during the regular season, rediscovered his scoring touch. Penner’s become the power forward Lombardi envisioned when he acquired the winger from Edmonton at last season’s trade deadline.

Rookie defenseman Slava Voynov is playing like a seasoned veteran, teaming up with veteran Willie Mitchell to form one of this spring’s best shutdown duos. Voynov’s performance explains why Lombardi was comfortable swapping defenseman Jack Johnson for Carter near the trade deadline.

As notable as the Kings’ best players have been, they’ve received tremendous support from their role players.

Forwards Jarret Stoll, Trevor Lewis, and mid-season call-up forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan have been particularly noteworthy for their strong physical play and timely offense.

Overall, they’ve played an aggressive, physical two-way game, out-skating and out-hitting their opponents.

The more cynical would also say they’ve out-embellished and out-dived their competition, but while they’ve done their fair share, they’re certainly no worse than other clubs in this year’s playoffs, or in previous post-seasons in recent years.

Yes, it’s an ugly part of the game, but until the league gets serious about supplemental discipline for diving and embellishment, it’s an unfortunate part of playoff hockey, and the Kings – like other NHL teams – will use that tactic.

Everything is coming together for the Kings at the right time. Strong goaltending, their top players playing at their best, a strong, physical team defense, and support from their role players have propelled the lowest-seed playoff team in the Western Conference into potential Stanley Cup contention, earning praise from fans, bloggers and pundits.

Rest assured, whoever their eventual opponent in the Cup Final, the Kings won’t be considered underdogs.