The crowd was a little bigger at the Toyota Sports Center Thursday morning as the Los Angeles Kings returned to their practice rink for the first time since putting away the Phoenix Coyotes this week in the Western Conference Championship series 4-1.
"After a bunch of text messages from people who haven't heard from in a while, it's one of the signs that you've done something unusual," said Dustin Penner, who scored the winning shot in overtime sealing the deal for the Kings.
Four thousand fans waited in the wee hours of the night at LAX to greet the Kings when they touched down at home. Camera flashes practically blinded players as they paraded down a human velvet rope at the airport. It was a sight most Kings had never seen before.
“Reality is people enjoy success," said Kings defensemen Willie Mitchell at Thursday's practice.
"Even before the playoffs started, I didn’t even believe that they’d even go past the first round," said Kings fan Daniel Kim who joined the larger-than-usual crowd at the team's practice.
Did anyone believe it? The Kings got off to a slow start. Enter head coach Darryl Sutter, then the trade of defensemen Jack Johnson for center Jeff Carter, then stuck at an average of two goals-or-so per game, then...playoff magic. Something happened as the Kings held on to a playoff chance as the stealthy No. 8 seed. And with a jolt of energy, the Kings methodically took out each victim — No. 1 Vancouver, No. 2 St. Louis, No. 3 Phoenix.
They’re playing faster, harder and more focused.
"It's amazing how fast these guys are," said Kim.
Thursday the players seemed relaxed but focused at the light practice. The Eastern Conference championship series is still undecided which gives … well some of the Kings time to rest, as 12-season NHL veteran Willie Mitchell puts it.
“Yeah the over 35 crowd likes that," he joked with reporters. "Is anyone else there?"
Mitchell, in his second year with the Kings, turned 35 last month. He is the team's oldest player and hasn’t had the chance to take home the Stanley Cup in his NHL career. He said with each year, the desire to win burns hotter.
Left wing Dustin Penner was there in 2007 with the Anaheim Ducks when they won the Cup. He agrees that maturity brings clarity.
“I’m going to try and pick up things I may have missed the first time as well as try and win another Stanley Cup,” he said.
It’ll be tricky for the Kings to see clearly through the glare of TV camera lights. Some of the guys have never experienced all of L.A. — heck, even half of the city — cheering for them. As the news cameras and mics crowded around the player who secured the team’s spot in the finals with a clutch overtime goal, one reporter asked how to pronounce his name.
"Yeah sure…Penner…P as in Paul," he began.