LOS ANGELES – Since the Los Angeles Kings went on their wild run to the Stanley Cup two years ago, they’ve played a total of 10 playoff series. They’ve had home ice advantage in exactly one of them.
Until now. The Kings start the Stanley Cup final at home Wednesday night and will host Game 7, if there is one June 18. Fans of the Kings are reminded to actually show up at the Staples Center for Games 1 and 2 of the series because these ones are at home for a change.
It’s never, ever easy to win a Stanley Cup, but the Kings made it look that way two years ago. They took a 3-0 lead in all four series, went 8-0 on the road and posted an overall record of 16-4. This spring, of course, has been the polar opposite. The Kings have already played one more game through three rounds than they played to win the Cup in 2012. They came back from a 3-0 and 3-2 series deficits and became the first team in history to go to the Stanley Cup after winning three consecutive Game 7s. They’ve played a whack of big, difficult teams.
All of which has made this road to the Stanley Cup a lot bumpier, and a lot more real, for the Kings. Two years ago was a confluence of a bunch of freaky circumstances – case in point, the Phoenix Coyotes knocking off the Chicago Blackhawks in the first round. This time, it feels more like it’s supposed to in order to get to the Cup final.
“Something this hard to win is supposed to be tough,” said Kings center Jarret Stoll. “It’s supposed to hurt and you’re supposed to have pain and blood and guts. But that only lasts for a little while and then you have all these great memories and good times if it goes the right way.”
To be sure, the league’s new playoff alignment had something to do with the Kings more circuitous road to the Cup final. The good thing about it was that they got to play all their games in the first two rounds in California. The bad news was they had to play all their games in the first two rounds in California. The Pacific Division, in case you haven’t noticed, has become the Group of Death NHL-style. The teams are big, tough, skilled and difficult to play against, the kinds of opponents that generally grind teams down into dust. The Kings fell down 3-0 to the San Jose Sharks in the first round and never lost hope in their ability to come back in the series. Stoll talked about “breaking” teams and that was something the Kings were able to do to the Sharks with every passing game.
“We knew we had momentum and we knew we put them in some tough situations mentally,” Stoll said. “And we knew we had to keep pushing and keep pushing until they broke. We could see it and we could feel it and when you feel it, it’s an exciting feeling and you just want to keep that going. They’re on their heels, body language, the way they’re reacting. Their play drops off and guys are bailing out.”
And that is what makes the Kings such a formidable opponent. Like few other teams in the NHL, they’re able to identify the soft spots in teams and capitalize on that vulnerability. It also helps that they’ve been through enough of these situations as a group that they know they can play themselves out of most jams.
“Everybody has probably played on a team where when it gets hard or things don’t go right, you start looking to blame someone,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown. “But that’s not the case here. We’re pretty hard on each other, but it’s never, ‘Why isn’t this guy doing this.’ It’s always, ‘We can be better collectively.’ “
When asked whether this run to the Cup has been more difficult than two years ago or when he won with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, Kings winger Justin Williams said he’d have to get back to us in a couple of weeks. “But to play three Game 7 series against three awesome teams…” Williams said. “Not to say the teams we played in 2012 were no good, but we were able to roll through. But this is what it should be. It’s supposed to be hard.”
(Editor’s note: Two changes were made to this article after it was first published. The reference to the Blackhawks being the defending champions in 2012 was removed and Carolina’s Cup-winning year was changed to 2006. We regret the errors.)