Early March losses in Columbus and Detroit on consecutive nights could have sunken this Los Angeles team after months of treading water in the gut of the Western Conference.
The second loss was particularly deflating. Against an injury-riddled Red Wings team, the Kings surrendered a late third period lead on a quick succession of plays that left Mike Richards exasperated at both his own play that night and the fortunes of a team that finished the night in a three-way tie for ninth place in the Western Conference.
"You can't take a step back. You have to move forward," Richards told LA Kings Insider after the Detroit loss. "As tough as it is, we just have to show some character in this dressing room, in terms of what we can do and how we're going to move forward and hopefully get better."
Richards offered these quotes on a night in which his turnover led to Detroit's tying goal, and Darren Helm, the opposing center, scored the game-winner while he was on the ice.
Los Angeles took the following game in a shootout in Chicago, the first win of a six-game winning streak. They've played 28 regular season and playoff games since the loss in Detroit, winning 21 of them.
Richards' seasonal arc of being effectively exiled from Philadelphia to becoming a major playoff pillar of a Stanley Cup-bound team is a story of collective redemption shared by his two linemates, both of whom are sufficiently answering the questions asked of them this season with emphatic, declarative performances.
To Richards' right on The Redemption Line is Jeff Carter, with whom a familiar plight is shared. Traded from Philadelphia on the same day last June to an unfamiliar Western Conference team, Carter is far from where he imagined he'd be during an injury-shortened Blue Jackets stint in which the club was still nursing 18 wins at the time of his February trade.
"It's been quite a year for me, going from Philly to Columbus, and things not working out the way we all would have hoped there," Carter said. "Trade deadline, coming out here, andhaving a chance to play in the playoffs and play for a Stanley Cup, as a player, that's really all you can ask. Since I've been out here, it's been real exciting."
Having shaken off the lingering effects of a late-season ankle injury that likely limited his effectiveness in the first round, Carter's Game 2 first period goal in St. Louis has opened up the floodgates of his two-way production. More impressive than his four goals and seven points over his last eight games has been his contribution to the forwards' responsible defensive habits, reflected in the success the former center has had on the penalty kill and backcheck. His three-goal performance against Phoenix in Game 2 perhaps overshadowed the number of times that game he was the first forward back in his defensive zone to defend against a Coyotes rush.
"I think we've talked about it a little bit, just the two of us at home and whatnot," Carter said of chats with Richards on finishing as a Stanley Cup runner-up with the Flyers in 2010. The two are roommates.
"We've been here once, came up on the short end and we're going to do everything in our power to come out on the other end this time."
How appropriate is it that the two skate with Dustin Penner? His own story of redemption, actively shaped by Kings fans, was started with the revelation that he had injured his back while sitting down to eat a stack of pancakes. With two goals in 30 games at the time of the injury, what could have been the rock bottom of his Los Angeles tenure was instead the unveiling of one of the prime personalities in the Kings' dressing room and the keeper of a dry wit that continues to get sharper by the day in the playoffs.
Penner endeared himself to a critical fanbase by owning his injury admission, at one point taking part in a charitable pancake breakfast that benefitted the Kings Care Foundation, a hallmark moment of an upward-trending and character-revealing second half that seemed to quiet the rabble circulated by his detractors.
Between his game-winning goal late in the third period of Game 1 against Vancouver and his Western Conference-clinching overtime goal last Tuesday against Phoenix, Penner has more than served a need alongside Richards and Carter he's added 10 points and has provided efforts emblematic of Los Angeles' overall size-and-forechecking element.
"I'm sure he'd be the first to tell you that it's kind of been an up and down year for him," Carter said of Penner. "Since I've got here, anyways, I've noticed that he's always happy. He still keeps working hard, and when you're upbeat and stay positive, good things are bound to happen. He's been playing great with our line here the last little while, and it was nice to see him get a big goal like that."
"I think my year was maybe a lot like Dustin's where it was kind of up and down, and things weren't going the way I would have liked. Now that the trade deadline comes and I have a chance to play in the playoffs again and play for a Cup, this is where every hockey player wants to be, and I'm looking forward to the challenge."
As judged by Penner's sentiments, "looking forward" appear to be the operative words.
"I'm not looking back too much right now, sitting back and seeing what people think I've accomplished," Penner said.
"For me, and for the team, it's just looking at the opportunity in front of you and worrying about that and getting intrinsically focused."