Hard times helped Kings of West

STEVE MACFARLANE, CALGARY SUN

, Last Updated: 5:44 AM ET

Losing isn't fun, but in the case of the Los Angeles Kings' rise to the top of the Western Conference, it was necessary.

Not many of the current Kings have been around for the entire playoff drought. Last season's sixth-straight spring without an extended schedule, however, was enough punishment for the group to realize what they would have to do to avoid a seventh.

The result is a view from above -- something they could get used to -- as they head into tonight's game against the Calgary Flames in first place in the West and challenging for the NHL's best record.

"I'd say our success has a lot to do with what we went through last year. We have pretty much the same group of guys in there," said Kings captain Dustin Brown.

"We went through a lot of learning and growing pains last year playing in tight games. I think having that same group come back is a huge help."

Adding a few character players such as Ryan Smyth, Rob Scuderi and Justin Williams helped with the team's personality on and off the ice.

Inviting all Kings to return to the city early over the summer, Brown and alternate captain Matt Greene helped speed up the bonding process that has paid dividends early this season.

"We're a very tight group," said head coach Terry Murray, who has helped guide the Kings from the basement to the penthouse in his second season behind their bench.

"I think that's the one thing that jumps out. We've come together very quickly as a team, especially when you look at the number of young guys we have in our group."

Some of those young players are also the team's biggest stars. Defenceman Drew Doughty is still a teenager, while early Hart Trophy candidate Anze Kopitar is just 22.

Injuries to key veterans Smyth and Jarret Stoll and young, energetic grinder Wayne Simmonds haven't slowed the team down.

Dealing so well with the injury adversity and becoming the hunted rather than hunters gives their spot in the standings even more shock value.

They might be offended by that idea if they weren't so confident.

"I don't think it's insulting. I think it's pleasantly surprising," Sean O'Donnell said.

"I don't think you'd pick too many of us at the start of the year and expect us to be where we are as far as how quickly things have come together."

Transforming their expectations has been just as rapid a progression.

"Our belief system in our room is really high," said Brown.

"We go into games believing it's our game to win.

"That's something that again goes back to last year. Last year, we were hoping to stay in a game. Now it's more about knowing that we're capable of winning this game if we play well."

STEVE.MACFARLANE@SUNMEDIA.CA


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