SAN JOSE — When there was every reason to give up, the Kings continued to fight.
When they had every excuse to moan about the San Jose Sharks being too fast and too big and too deadly at creating outnumbered rushes — all of which was true in the first three games of the teams' first-round playoff series — the Kings fixed their problems instead of making them worse.
And now they've made history with a 5-1 victory over the perennially underachieving Sharks, winning the series in seven games and setting up a second-round matchup against the Ducks that will start Saturday in Anaheim.
No planes or time zone changes, but a stiff challenge for the Kings, who lost four of their five regular-season games against the Ducks.
"Travel is a lot easier," Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick said Wednesday, with a rare smile. "We're looking forward to that. The one positive, there, to the draw. Obviously they're a great team. There's a lot of things we have to prepare for, but travel's not one of them."
Coach Darryl Sutter knew all along that what appeared to be the Kings' darkest hour — the overtime loss in Game 3 that put them at a 3-0 series deficit — wasn't the end, but the beginning of their chance to show what they were made of.
"It's a tough hill," he said after that game, "and we won't go quietly away, that's for sure."
Now, they don't have to go away at all. As only the fourth NHL team to win a best-of-seven series after losing the first three games, the Kings will go to Anaheim to meet the top-seeded Ducks, who completed a six-game victory over Dallas on Sunday.
Finally, the playoff series fans in Southern California have been waiting for, the first postseason matchup of the Kings and the team that owes its birth in large part to the hockey interest created when Wayne Gretzky wore a Kings uniform.
"I think it's great for Southern California hockey to finally have this matchup," said Kings captain Dustin Brown, who scored the first of two empty-net goals and sent Sharks fans streaming out of SAP Center. "It will be fun."
The Kings got this far because they welcomed the pressure that always seems to overwhelm the Sharks, who finished one place and 11 points ahead of them in the Pacific Division this season. The Kings were strong mentally where the Sharks were fragile. They became positionally sound as the series went on, while the Sharks became more confused.
"One and two were a little out of character for us," Quick said of the first two games. "They kind of pushed that upon us. They forced us to make errors and mistakes and you've got to tip your cap to them on that. Games 3, 4, right on through, we got back to what we're used to doing."
So did he, giving up only two goals in the final three games. But he had lots of company.
Center Anze Kopitar, durable defenseman Drew Doughty and clutch scorer Justin Williams all did their jobs. So did youngsters Tyler Toffoli (three goals) and Jake Muzzin. They compensated for losing stalwart defenseman Willie Mitchell to an injury in Game 6 and playing without him in Game 7, banding together in a fashion the Sharks might never learn.
San Jose's big guns disappeared late in the series, as they usually do. Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski were largely silent. Patrick Marleau had a few scoring chances early in Game 7 but became invisible later. That could cost Coach Todd McLellan and/or General Manager Doug Wilson their jobs, but how do you teach heart and determination?
The Kings had it all along. "That was a great feeling. Like we said from Game 4 on — or even Game 1 really — we believed in ourselves from the first game and even though it went down 3-0 we were never going to give up," Doughty said.
"We kind of sensed going into tonight's game they were going to be a little nervous, they were going to kind of see what was going to happen. I felt they played a good game, but the third period was huge for us."
In winning, the Kings joined the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs, 1975 New York Islanders and 2010 Philadelphia Flyers in rallying to erase a 3-0 deficit. It's not like winning the Stanley Cup, but it's close — and it means the Kings keep alive their chances of hoisting that silver prize for the second time in three years.
"This is something I think we're all going to remember for the rest of our lives," Doughty said. "We're not done yet though. We're going to move on. ... That was an unbelievable feeling and great team effort."
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