Kings find ways to elevate their game

Despite the roster changes the Kings have made since they won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and again in 2014, despite shuffling key pieces on defense — which still results in some nervous moments — and despite occasionally falling into profound scoring slumps, a crucial piece of their essential nature has remained unchanged.

When they face a challenge and need to elevate their game, they simply find ways to do it.

With a chance to vault past the Ducks and recapture the Pacific Division lead Thursday, the Kings responded with opportunistic scoring and the defensive diligence that was so important in their two championship runs. Second-period goals 93 seconds apart by Milan Lucic — his 20th goal this season — and Kris Versteeg, who rebounded his own shot from close range, gave them a 2-1 victory at Staples Center in a game packed with as much emotion as meaning in the standings.

This is the type of fun we missed out on last year," Kings captain Dustin Brown said before the game, referring to the team's slide toward oblivion last season and failure to make the playoffs.

The San Jose Sharks' 5-4 loss to Winnipeg means the Kings and Ducks will own the top two spots in the division and have home-ice advantage in the first round of the playoffs, but the order of their finish is still muddled.

The Kings have 101 points with one game left; the Ducks have 99 points and have two games left. If they finish tied in points, the Kings will have an edge because they have more regulation and overtime wins.

They got to this point, of playing this well, for one reason. "A lot of emphasis on good defensive hockey as a team as a whole," defenseman Drew Doughty said. "All the players and all the leaders in the room continually check hard, play hard, play good defense and the goals will come that way. And we were able to do that tonight, and that was the only reason we beat them, because we played good defense."

Entering this game, it wasn't clear whether the Kings could consistently return to the foundation of their success: physicality, defense, and clutch goaltending from Jonathan Quick. They had lost six of their nine previous games, often looking wobbly in the process.

But as they've been able to do at their best, they recognized the cause of their woes and found solutions. The cast of characters within the locker room has changed, but the will to win still burns within the core players and has been communicated to newer players and those who haven't been through the playoff grind.

They rode that will on Tuesday to score a late tying goal and overtime winner against Calgary and revived it Thursday against the Ducks, who have been plagued by injuries recently and might not get their entire lineup together in time for the playoffs.

Lucic, increasing his free-agent price with every goal, backhanded a bouncer past John Gibson for their first goal, 28 seconds into the second period. Versteeg, acquired for his grit and willingness to play in the toughest areas, deflected a shot off the crossbar and was in perfect position, unchecked, to poke the puck home at 2:01. Quick made 19 saves to record his 40th win this season and extend his own club record.

Boosted by a roaring crowd at Staples Center, the Kings experienced the fun they didn't experience last season, when they became the first defending Cup champion to miss the playoffs since the Carolina Hurricanes in 2007.

"I think a lot of what was done this year was a result of what happened to us last year, just how guys prepared, and just having time to prepare during the off-season," Brown said. "We played much better early on than we have historically, at least since I've been here.

"I'm confident we'll get our game going…. We're back where we want to be, playing playoff hockey, and it's somewhere where I think we are comfortable as a group."

This was a day the Kings had targeted, waited for, wanted to use as a gauge to see where they stand as the regular season ends.

They stood tall after the kind of performance that was close to what they had insisted was still possible while they flailed the past few weeks.

"I think we've been struggling probably since we clinched and haven't really played the type of hockey we want to play, but I think we've addressed it internally," Brown said. "It's not like we're oblivious to the fact that we haven't been playing well.

"Hockey's a funny game. It's the same group of guys that were rolling three, four weeks ago. So it's finding that swagger."

Full-on swagger might be a little far off, but the Kings had every right to be proud Thursday.

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter: @helenenothelen

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