Los Angeles Kings head coach Darryl Sutter listens to a question during a news conference after Chicago Blackhawks\' 4-3 win over the Kings in the second overtime period in Game 5 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Western Conference finals, Saturday, June 8, 2013, in Chicago. The Blackhawks advance to the Stanley Cup finals. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Dean Lombardi was awake until dawn after the Los Angeles Kings' Stanley Cup defence came to a crashing end in the Western Conference finals.
After talking with coach Darryl Sutter until 4:30 a.m., the Kings' general manager decided he couldn't fault his team for its effort or its tenacity in a difficult post-season run that ended one series early.
Lombardi also remained steadfast in his belief that the Kings can stay in annual Cup contention for quite a while.
"You can never condone losing, but I have to condone their sense of honour," Lombardi said Sunday. "They didn't quit. Fought through. They deserve to be commended for what they did accomplish, and they deserve to be commended for the fact that right now, they're not satisfied."
The Kings spent Sunday decompressing from their elimination by the Chicago Blackhawks, who finished off the conference finals in double overtime in Game 5. Los Angeles is the 14th consecutive NHL champion to fail to repeat, but the first in four years to make it back to the conference finals the next year.
Once they've spent a few days clearing their heads and healing from the litany of injuries dogging everyone this time of year, the Kings will look back a bit more fondly on the most successful two-year stretch in franchise history. Los Angeles won its first Stanley Cup title last season and followed it up with just the third trip to the conference finals in the Second Six club's history.
Los Angeles had never won more than three playoff rounds in any two-year stretch before winning six rounds in the past two seasons. Although the Blackhawks finished off the Kings relatively quickly, the champions kept the NHL's respect.
Not that any of it will make the Kings feel any better about missing an opportunity to repeat.
"I think a lot of our team, and I think we could have made a push for it there again," goalie Jonathan Quick said. "I think as a team and individually, I don't think we played as well as we could have played. ... You think about it, who finished 30th this year? Colorado? We're in the same boat as them. We didn't accomplish what we set out to do."
Although the Kings played impressively at times during their playoff run, they still lost seven of their last nine post-season games after taking a 2-0 lead in the second round against San Jose. They finished 9-9 in the post-season, going 1-8 away from Staples Center and managing just 2.06 goals per game.
Those numbers might make the Kings' run to the conference finals less impressive—or they might make the Kings' resilience and determination even more impressive. The Kings are trying to keep an optimistic perspective.
"Going into (Game 5), I still thought we could come back and win," said centre Mike Richards, who returned from a three-game absence with an apparent concussion to score the last-minute goal to force overtime. "Everybody still thought we could win that series and move on and contend for the Stanley Cup again. The most frustrating, devastating part is you still have that belief. That's the most heartbreaking thing, when you believe you can, and maybe even deserve, to win last night, and not getting the opportunity to."
While Quick and captain Dustin Brown both had rough stretches in the post-season, the Kings' biggest individual disappointment likely was centre Anze Kopitar, their leading scorer for each of the past six seasons. The Slovenian star appeared to be a shadow of his usual self at times in the post-season, managing just three goals and six assists in 18 games with a minus-2 rating.
Most Kings fans suspected Kopitar was playing with an unreported major injury, but Kopitar said Sunday he had no significant injuries: He was just in a slump.
"We needed more from me in terms of the production this post-season, but I honestly wish I could point a finger on something and do it different," Kopitar said. "The cold streak came at the wrong time. Definitely frustrated because of it, but that's the way it goes sometimes. Now for me, it's a matter of working mentally and just getting prepared for these kinds of moments ... and getting out of this problem quicker and not feeling too down."
Lombardi already has spent plenty of time planning the Kings' future. The GM said he would love to keep his entire roster intact again, as he did last summer, but knows it will be more difficult with an encroaching salary cap and numerous free agents.
Rob Scuderi, Dustin Penner and Brad Richardson are unrestricted free agents, while Slava Voynov, Trevor Lewis, Kyle Clifford, Jordan Nolan, Jake Muzzin and Alec Martinez are restricted.
Lombardi already has much of the Kings' core under long-term deals, even locking down new defenceman Robyn Regehr for two more years during the playoffs, but the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement and salary cap could force Lombardi to make decisions he didn't anticipate a year ago while patiently building the Kings into a power.
"We've got a challenge here, but I'm confident we can meet it," Lombardi said. "It's unfortunate: We don't have a bad contract. Not one guy I want to get rid of. Basically we're being punished (by the CBA) for not having a bad contract."
Even before a full day had passed since the close of the season, Lombardi and Quick both mentioned an apparent goal for the Kings next year: A top-four finish in the Conference standings and more playoff series starting on home ice, where the Kings were practically unbeatable this season.
Los Angeles finished fifth in the West this season, missing home-ice advantage in the first round and again in the conference finals. The Kings had home-ice advantage on San Jose in the second round—and they needed it, with the home team winning all seven games in the series.
Lombardi thinks the Kings must establish a regular-season consistency that translates into top-four finishes and even division titles—something the Kings have won just once in franchise history.
He wants more Stanley Cups, but he also wants annual, steady excellence to attract and to retain the best players.
"I think we're there now where the most important thing—players want to be here because they can win," Lombardi said. "Now we take advantage of the fact that this is one of the best places in the world to live."