Los Angeles Kings celebrate after defeating the New Jersey Devils 2-1 in Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup finals in Newark, N.J., on Saturday, June 2, 2012. They are ready to start the Stanley Cup party in Los Angeles. A hearty group of Kings fans gathered at Los Angeles International Airport in the wee hours of Sunday morning to welcome the team back following a second straight 2-1 overtime victory over the New Jersey Devils. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP - Frank Franklin II
EL SEGUNDO, Calif. - The seed was planted in Drew Doughty's mind long before he got this close to the summit.
As a kid who grew up worshipping the Los Angeles Kings, the slick defenceman always envisioned himself helping lead the organization to a Stanley Cup. In fact, general manager Dean Lombardi made it clear that was part of his expectation when he selected Doughty second overall in 2008.
"Before I was even drafted I had a ton of meetings with the L.A. Kings staff," Doughty recalled Sunday at the Kings practice facility. "Every single one of those meetings, Dean always brought it up to me: `Are you going to be that guy to help us win that first Stanley Cup in franchise history?'
"My answer was always 'Yes."'
The Kings are oh-so-close to making it a reality.
With a pair of 2-1 overtime victories over the New Jersey Devils to open the championship series, Los Angeles flew back across the continent with an opportunity to wrap it up at Staples Center. This is bordering on fantasyland stuff for Doughty, who grew up in London, Ont., as a Kings fanatic and owned small black-and-silver replica sweaters bearing the names "Gretzky" and "Hrudey."
Those two men were key players in the Kings only other previous trip to the Stanley Cup final, which ended with a five-game loss to Montreal in 1993.
The current group has gone further than any team in the franchise's 44-year history, having won 14 games this post-season. Doughty's contributions have been impossible to ignore throughout the playoffs and he's taken it to another level at the most important time—logging a team-high 32 minutes of ice time in Game 2 and scoring a highlight-reel goal to boot.
"I'm having a lot of fun right now," said Doughty. "This is the biggest time of the year. I know in order for our team to be successful, I've got to be the best defenceman on the ice every night.
"Even though I put that pressure on myself, I'm having fun. I think that's when I'm at my best."
Of course, this has been anything but a fairytale season. A contract dispute kept Doughty out of training camp—the US$56-million, eight-year deal he eventually signed made him the NHL's third highest-paid defenceman—and some predictable early-season struggles were compounded by a shoulder injury.
But the 2010 Canadian Olympian eventually regained the form that made him a Norris Trophy finalist in his second NHL season and credits coach Darryl Sutter, who replaced Terry Murray in December, for helping get him back on track.
The Kings are thankful he did.
"He's unique," teammate Mike Richards said of Doughty. "There's not a lot of guys that have that skillset. It's scary that he's only 22 years old; that he's going to continue to improve. I've enjoyed playing with him this year.
"I won the Olympics with him and I think he's playing better now than he was there."
These are exciting times for a Kings team that has steamrolled its competition and only dropped two games since the regular season ended in early April. It would take an upset of historic proportions for New Jersey to win the series.
Of the last six Stanley Cup finals that began with the road team winning the opening two games, five ended in sweeps. The other was over in five games.
However, Devils coach Pete DeBoer wanted no part of that discussion. He pointed out to his players that they haven't been dominated by the Kings and actually had a good effort in Game 2—essentially falling one Ilya Kovalchuk crossbar short of tying the series.
"That's stuff irrelevant," DeBoer said of the gloomy stats. "We really believe we can win a game tomorrow night. If we do, it's a different series."
Added veteran goalie Martin Brodeur: "I think we're heading in the right direction."
The Kings have ridden their current wave of success to previously unseen heights in a city more famous for its beaches and celebrities than ice rinks. Los Angeles seemed to be bracing for a party as the Kings arrived back in town early Sunday morning, with a host on the local KTLA morning news boldly predicting "we're going to have a parade by Friday."
That means she was projecting victories in Monday's Game 3 and Wednesday's Game 4 for a four-game sweep.
Players have already started to see a number of changes around town. Numerous electronic billboards reading "Go Kings!" dot the streets while the anonymity they once enjoyed has started to disappear.
"Now that we're winning, you can just see how the fanbase is turning," said Doughty. "We're the talk of the city, we're getting recognized everywhere. The fans are going crazy and it's turning into a hockey town."
Imagine what might happen if they actually get to lift the Stanley Cup. The organization's championship drought dates back to its birth in 1967 and matches the Toronto Maple Leafs and St. Louis Blues for the longest in the NHL.
"It's been a long time for these guys," said Kings forward Jeff Carter. "I think it would mean the world to this franchise (to win). They've had some good times and bad times, some ups and downs, and they've done a great job of sticking to the plan here and building within the organization."
Doughty experienced many of the downs as a fan and is enjoying the ups a player. Two more wins would not only get his name etched into the Stanley Cup, it would also come with a place in Kings folklore.
"Now that we're here, we're not finished," said Doughty. "We want to do everything we can do to win that Cup."