The moment that Dustin Brown came crashing onto the larger NHL playoff stage is easily determined. It occurred during the Los Angeles Kings' opening-round series against the Vancouver Canucks, when Brown delivered a clean, crunching open-ice hit on Vancouver Canucks captain Henrik Sedin. At a time when all manner of body checks were examined under microscopic scrutiny, even Sedin was quick to concede that Brown's hit was clean.
You can take all the points he's scored (10 so far); all the plays he's made shorthanded (which resulted in four goals); and all the quiet leadership Brown provides, but nothing galvanized his team more than that hit at that moment in that series.
L.A. had won the first two games in Vancouver, but they'd also led the Canucks the last time the teams met in the playoffs and eventually faltered. Brown's hit woke up a sleepy club that, once called to attention, proceeded to march past Vancouver in five games and then subsequently swept the St. Louis Blues out of the second round.
So here are the Kings, halfway to their goal of being the first L.A. team to win the Stanley Cup and they are doing it, in equal parts, because of Jonathan Quick's goaltending, their committed defence and Brown's multiple contributions up front.
"They say actions speak louder than words; and he's yelling his leadership on the ice with the way he plays," said teammate Dustin Penner, who described Brown as a "relentless and tireless worker and a quiet leader. He's the same Dustin Brown every night. It doesn't matter who plays for the other team, whether it's a Sedin or a [David]Backes, he is making them work for every inch of ice when he's on it."
Brown was named the Kings captain back in October of 2008, when he was a shy, almost withdrawn 23-year-old, replacing Rob Blake. In the beginning, Brown talked about what it means to be a leader with Blake, who always had a quiet sort of dignity when he played and wasn't the most vocal leader of all time either. Blake had a soft-spoken quality, but his presence in the dressing room was felt by all, especially the young players coming up.
Over time, Brown has come to mirror many of Blake's best qualities, right down to the punishing hits that both can dole out.
"When I was first named captain, I didn't understand all the responsibilities of it," said Brown, in an interview Monday. "There's on-ice responsibilities; I think everyone's aware of those. But there's a lot of stuff that goes on, off the ice, that you just don't think about until you're in that situation and you have to deal with it. And Blakey was one of those good guys, who'd been around for a while and had it figured out pretty well when he captained our team right before me. We didn't have the greatest team, but he always had the team's best interests at heart."
Leadership, with the current edition of the Kings, is easier than in the past, suggested Brown, because the make-up of the team has changed.
"It's not just me, Kopi [Anze Kopitar]and Greener [Matt Greene]" said Brown. "We have 10, 13 guys that are leaders in this room. So when it comes to the whole leadership responsibility, it's not burdened by just one or two guys. It makes it a very comfortable place, where you can lean on each other in time of need. That goes a long way in having strong leadership."
Mentally, the second month of the NHL playoffs are often more challenging than the first because for so many players, it represents uncharted ground. Sometimes, if the focus falters for just a moment, the end can come hard and fast. However, a handful of Kings players, including Penner, Jarret Stoll, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, have all made trips to the Stanley Cup final before, Penner winning it all with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007, and so they understand that forewarned is forearmed.
"I see a lot of similarities between the Ducks' run and the run we're currently on," Penner said. "There are still eight more wins to go, but the mentality of the team and the focus and the intensity we have each shift and each game … it's breeding confidence.
"We've all bought in. You can tell by the way we carry ourselves as a team."
In the meantime, Brown has three little boys at home, Jake, Mason and Cooper, who all get to watch hockey in May for the first time in their short lives. 1993 – the last time the Kings made it this far, doesn't mean much to them, only that daddy is still taking them to the rink at a time when he's usually on vacation by now.
"My middle son's worn his L.A. Kings jersey for two weeks now," Brown said. "He hasn't taken it off. He wore it to school today for like the 15th day in a row. They're definitely excited. I don't think they completely understand everything, but they still like coming to the hockey games."
So, for that matter, does their father.