LOS ANGELES -- It is far too early to discuss who the top contenders for the Conn Smythe Trophy are, but there are clearly two strong candidacies developing in this city.
Captain Dustin Brown scored twice -- a wicked snipe for the game-winner and an empty-netter for the series-clincher -- and goaltender Jonathan Quick made 23 saves as the Los Angeles Kings completed a sweep of the St. Louis Blues with a 3-1 victory Sunday afternoon at Staples Center to advance to the conference finals for the first time in 19 years.
"We knew we had all the ingredients in here to make something special happen, and it's coming together," Kings forward Jarrett Stoll said. "But we're only halfway there. We got a long ways to go yet. But we're getting closer. Anytime you knock off a team the caliber of the St. Louis Blues, you're doing something right."
Los Angeles will now await the winner of the Phoenix-Nashville series, which the Coyotes lead 3-1 and can close out Monday in Glendale, Ariz. The Kings became only the third No. 8 seed to reach the conference finals. Montreal achieved the feat two seasons ago, and the lone No. 8 seed to win a conference and play in the Cup Final was Edmonton in 2006.
St. Louis had a remarkable regular season, amassing 109 points and winning the Central Division after starting the campaign 6-7-0 before a coaching change. This was the Blues' first trip to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in three years and first time in the second round since 2002.
The Blues were a dominant team at home during the regular season, but dropped both at the start of this series against Los Angeles and weren't able to recover.
"I mean, it is tough to take away from 109 points. We obviously had a career year as a team and that's a great thing to look forward for next year," Blues forward Chris Stewart said. "When you do get swept, you're definitely left with a bad taste in your mouth. It is a learning experience. You have to take the good with the bad.
"We can sit here and make excuses all day, but our goal was to win the Stanley Cup this year. You have to have that mentality every year. Every time you come up short, you didn't get the job done. We'll make the adjustments and come back next year."
The Kings began this postseason as underdogs, but forget about that moniker. Los Angeles has brushed aside the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks and the Blues in just nine games.
Brown and Quick have led the way for Los Angeles. While the additions of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have bolstered the depth up front, Brown has been fantastic this postseason. He is now third in the League with six goals and 11 points despite playing only the nine games, and his physical play has disrupted both the Canucks and the Blues.
"I think it was fitting he scored the winner," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said.
Quick will be in Las Vegas for the 2012 NHL Awards show as a Vezina Finalist, and if he and the defense corps in front of him continue their current form, he might have some hardware to bring with him to the event. He has the lowest goals against average (1.55) and highest save percentage (.949) of any of the seven remaining goaltenders.
In the first postseason sweep in franchise history, Quick yielded only six goals, and none on 17 power-play chances for the Blues.
"It's the time of the year when you have to enjoy hockey," Quick said. "It's the time of the year when you don't know if you are going to have another game, so you just try to enjoy ever day and try to enjoy the game as much as you can."
Jordan Nolan put the Kings in front after a giveaway by Blues defenseman Roman Polak early in the first period. Polak collected a pass from along the end boards to the left of goaltender Brian Elliott, but when he tried to settle it in front of him, it trickled away and into the slot.
Nolan was the third Kings player who had a chance to get to the puck, and he didn't miss, putting a shot past Elliott at 4:36 of the opening period. It was Nolan's first career Stanley Cup Playoffs goal. Dustin Penner was credited with an assist on the play, and he now has seven points in nine postseason games -- he had only 18 points in 65 regular-season contests.
The Kings dominated the first 10 minutes, and St. Louis didn't put a second shot on Quick until 11:17 into the period -- exactly 11 minutes after the Blues' first shot on net. Kevin Shattenkirk had the team's third shot at 11:34 of the first, and he tied this contest at one with a blast from the top of the right circle.
It was Shattenkirk's first goal of this postseason, and the first by any member of the St. Louis defense corps.
As Los Angeles has often in this series, the Kings responded after St. Louis scored. Brown skated the puck into the zone on the left wing and snapped a shot through Blues defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and into the top right corner.
Los Angeles had another strong start in the second period, but St. Louis found its legs and outshot the Kings 13-3 in the middle 20 minutes. Quick didn't have any highlight-reel saves, but he made all the ones he had -- which hasn’t been the case at the other end of the ice at times in this series -- and Los Angeles maintained its one-tally advantage.
"When their goalie is playing well, if it takes 25 shots, great. If it takes 50, we got to find a way to get 50," St. Louis captain David Backes said. "Not enough today and a couple soft plays by us. They're Johnny-on-the-spot and capitalized on them. I'm more disappointed in their ability to stick together as a cohesive unit and play for each other a lot more than we were. We were reactive and taking penalties, which disrupted our rhythm and didn't let us get into our flow.
"I think the second period we really got into our game, the way we played all year to be successful and I don't think they had a ton of response for it, but they did a good job of bending and not breaking. They get credit, but we're going to have a long summer of thinking about how we could have been better in the series."
The Kings sat back at times during the third period as well, but they hemmed the Blues in for about 50 seconds in the final two minutes as the Blues tried to get Elliott off the ice. A standing-room only crowd at Staples Center was already on its feet, but when Brown found the empty net it set off a wild celebration.
"It was huge," Brown said. "I've been here a long time and it's one of those I've been waiting to be in this situation, continue on. I'm pretty excited right now. But you wake up tomorrow and you realize you're just halfway done now."