Resilience n. The ability to bounce back and recover from adversity.
If you had to take a look at the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Kings season, it looked pretty much like the 2011-2012 season: the Kings, with all the offensive weapons they have, were struggling to find the back of the net. But like 2012, a crucial trade deadline deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets changed the course of the team. The Kings traded Matt Frattin and two draft picks in exchange for Marian Gaborik. The Kings easily made their way into the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 46-28-8 record, but with only 206 goals for, they were the lowest-scoring team out of the sixteen teams that qualified in the playoffs…just like 2012.
The Kings’ first-round opponent was San Jose Sharks, a team that they dispatched in a grueling seven-game Conference Semifinal series last year, The Kings found themselves on the brink of an early playoff exit after losing Game 3 in overtime on home ice, 4-3. They were being outscored by the Sharks 17-8 in the first three games of the series. Only three previous times has a team marched itself out of a 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series in seven games. What happened next? Game 4: Kings win 6-3. Game 5: Kings shut out Sharks 3-0 at the Shark Tank. Game 6: Kings win 4-1 on home ice to force a Game 7 back in San Jose. And in Game 7, the Kings pulled off the impossible comeback. They won, 5-1, to become only the fourth team in NHL history to come back from an 0-3 deficit to win a playoff series in seven games. Their second-round opponent, like the San Jose Sharks, would also be no easy task to dispatch.
For the previous nineteen seasons, the Anaheim Ducks have played second-fiddle to the Kings, until they won the Stanley Cup in 2007. Yet both of these teams never met in a playoff series. The Ducks rolled past the Dallas Stars in six games in the first round, and once the Kings won their series, the eyes of the hockey world were focused on Southern California. The Kings and the Ducks would meet for the first time in a playoff series, and the Kings stole home ice by winning the first two games at Honda Center. The Ducks responded and stole home ice back by winning the next two games at Staples Center. The Ducks would put the Kings back in a familiar position after winning Game 5 at home. Once again, the Kings needed to win at home to force a Game 7 back in Anaheim. They did exactly what they had to do, winning Game 6, 2-1. In Game 7, The Kings stormed out to a quick 4-0 lead, and they never looked back, winning 6-2 to advance to the Western Conference Final for the third straight year.
The Kings’ opponent in the Western Conference Final was a familiar foe. It was the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. Last year, as defending Stanley Cup champions, they were dethroned by the Hawks in 5 games. All the Kings wanted was a little quid pro quo; lex talionis; payback. After dropping Game 1, 3-1, the Kings won the next three games, putting themselves on the brink of the Stanley Cup Final for the second time in three years. However, the Blackhawks, like the champions they are, refused to go away quietly. They won Game 5 in double-overtime, and won Game 6 in Los Angeles to force a Game 7 back in Chicago. This was a far different position the Kings were than in the previous two series. Instead of coming back and erasing a series deficit, the Kings had a tough time trying to close out the series. Unlike the previous two Game 7s, this Game 7 was a back-and-forth affair that eventually needed to be settled in overtime. In overtime, Alec Martinez launched a shot from the point, deflecting the puck off of Nick Leddy past Corey Crawford to do what the Blackhawks did the year before: dethrone the defending Stanley Cup champions and advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
In the Stanley Cup Final, the Kings took on the Eastern Conference champion New York Rangers. The Rangers took nearly the same route as the Kings did, beating the Philadelphia Flyers in 7 games, beating the Pittsburgh Penguins in 7 games, and beating the Montreal Canadiens in 6 games en route to their first Stanley Cup Final appearance in twenty years. In Game 1, the Rangers bolted out to a quick 2-0 lead, but slowly, the Kings came back, eventually taking Game 1 in overtime, 3-2. In Game 2, the Rangers once again bolted out to a quick 2-0 lead, but again, the Kings slowly came back, Down 4-2 in the third period, the Kings rallied on goals by Dwight King and Marian Gaborik to tie the game, 4-4. The game went into a first, then a second overtime. In the end, Dustin Brown deflected a point shot from Willie Mitchell past Henrik Lundqvist to take a commanding 2-0 series lead. As the series shifted to Madison Square Garden, the Kings kept the foot on the throttle, shutting out the Rangers 3-0 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead. It was a complete 180 from the Kings’ previous three playoff series. With a chance to sweep the Rangers in four straight games, Henrik Lundqvist forced a Game 5 back in Los Angeles by stopping 40 of 41 Kings shots. On Friday the 13th, with a full moon glowing out in the night sky, the Kings had a chance to win their second Stanley Cup in three years. Justin Williams gave the Kings a quick 1-0 lead through twenty minutes of play, but when it look like the Kings had momentum, the Rangers struck back on back-to-back shots at the end of the second period. A power play goal from Chris Kreider and a shorthanded goal from Brian Boyle gave the Rangers a 2-1 lead after forty minutes of play. When it looked like the Rangers were going to force a Game 6 back at The Garden, a power play goal by Marian Gaborik tied the game, 2-2. For the third time in this series, overtime was needed to decide the winner. At 14:43 of the second overtime period, Tyler Toffoli hit a wrist shot toward Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist made the original stop, but let out a juicy rebound, and Alec Martinez, the man who sent the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final, potted the game-winning, Cup-clinching goal that gave the Los Angeles Kings their second Stanley Cup championship in three years.
There’s a reason I began this entry with the word “resilience”. That word perfectly describes the 2013-2014 Los Angeles Kings. When down 3-0 to the Sharks, they found a way to come back. When down 3-2 to the Ducks, they found a way to come back. When up 3-1 to the Blackhawks, they found a way to hold on and finish the series. And in the Stanley Cup Final, they were down two goals twice, and found a way win the game. Half of the Kings’ playoff wins this year was when they were trailing at one point of the game. One-quarter of the Kings’ playoff wins this year was when they were trailing by two goals at one point of the game. Adversity creates character. It also creates the will to win. When facing elimination, the Kings willed their way to fight for one more game, and in a Game 7 situation, playing on the road in three of the most hostile environments for visiting players in the NHL, the Kings willed themselves to victory, silencing the home crowd and moving on the next round with the confidence that they cannot be beat. For the Los Angeles Kings, it was will and skill that led them back to the top of the mountain. They refused to go away, and they just would not quit. I thought that what the Chicago Blackhawks did last year would stir up talks of a modern-day NHL dynasty. But what the Kings did might, and will, give them a legitimate case that they’re a dynasty. The Kings won’t have to wait for another championship banner to be raised to the rafters of Staples Center. This October, there’ll be two new banners to be hung: one colored white, and the other colored black.