One goal with under 10 seconds remaining in regulation by a player returning from an injury sharpened the focus of the lens through which the Los Angeles Kings’ season was viewed.
Had the Kings’ final game been decided by a third period goal off a play in which Justin Williams either caught an edge or was tripped from behind by Bryan Bickell – realistically, that’s a penalty in the first two periods of the game – frustration over the uneven application of officiating, over the team’s inability to win on the road and over the brief conference finals visit would have seeped into the filter through which the 2012-13 season was ultimately viewed.
And then with the season drawing to a close, Jarret Stoll won an offensive zone faceoff, allowing Mike Richards to use his hip to deflect an Anze Kopitar shot past Corey Crawford. There was – and really, there always had been – life in this championship-defending Los Angeles team.
Instead of silently treading into the black void of Stanley Cup Playoff demise and becoming the latest team to succumb to intangibles that practically forbid the repeat of a Stanley Cup title, there were these observations by national hockey commentators:
Stanley Cup playoffs: Battered Kings leave with heads held high bit.ly/1011qxt
— Jesse Spector (@jessespector) June 9, 2013
Heck of a defense of the crown by the Kings
— Brian Stubits (@StubitsCBS) June 9, 2013
Can’t say enough good things about a Kings team that took on three phenomenal opponents & beat two of them. Virtually impossible to repeat.
— Adam Proteau (@Proteautype) June 9, 2013
Such consolation means little to a group of players that hadn’t let go of the sting of playoff dismissal when speaking to the media by phone on Sunday. The onset of reality and frustration that the team didn’t accomplish what they set out to hadn’t been dulled. “We set out to defend the Cup, and we were unable to do that,” Quick said.
Quick also referenced being in the same boat as the Colorado Avalanche, one of 29 teams whose Cup quests end either quietly on the final day of the regular season or on the wrong side of the handshake line.
Whereas the Avalanche were purportedly discussing whether to spend the first weekend of the off-season at Ghostbar or Tryst, the Kings were in the process of rebounding from a two-game deficit against the St. Louis Blues. And whereas the Blues were left reflecting on the four straight games they had lost to the Kings in a thoroughly compelling first round series, the Kings were in the midst of defeating the rival San Jose Sharks to make their second consecutive trip to the Western Conference Finals.
That a battered and exhausted Kings team won two playoff rounds and competed in the manner that they did against a healthy Chicago Blackhawks team that earned points in 41 of 48 regular season games – and yet still spoke of disappointment upon returning to Los Angeles – is the perfect illustration of the rise in expectations and accountability that is inherent in championship-eligible teams. Both the Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins have similar ideals.
Dean Lombardi has previously spoken about the construction of a team culture once an identity has been established. That culture, though still in the developmental process, has firm roots that sink deeply into a dressing room in which players look across the room and to those sitting beside them and know that every member of the team is playing for every other member of the team. There is a healthy, collective competition that few teams have the benefit to rely upon and is the reason why this team didn’t lose 4-1 after trailing 2-0 early in Game 5 or become discombobulated when Patrick Kane scored his asterisk-marked third period goal.
“When you have 20 guys who give a damn about each other and are competitors, you’ve really got something special,” Lombardi said. “That’s what these guys are.”
There was a window that was certainly open this year, never mind the hand that the Kings were dealt when injuries sharply sent the team off its expected trajectory one game into a lockout-marred season. The jagged edges of the team’s start were at their sharpest when the Kings fell to 3-5-2 with a 3-2 loss in Detroit on February 10 in a game they out-shot the Red Wings 47-31. With the Kings trailing 2-1 and Quick pulled with under a minute remaining, Alec Martinez activated from the blue line and chipped in an equalizer – only to set up Jonathan Ericsson’s game-winner on a shot from the right point that slipped by Quick with five seconds remaining.
“That was probably our best 60 minutes in a long time,” Dustin Brown said after the game. “Now we’ve got to forget about the last 10 seconds. We’ve got a game tomorrow, and probably, especially in a shortened season we won’t have time to sit here and talk about ‘what-ifs’.”
Just over 24 hours later, Los Angeles beat St. Louis 4-1 at the Scottrade Center, the first game of a 14-5-0 stretch.
“Nobody can say that this group in any way, shape or form quit, and that’s to them,” Lombardi said. “I don’t know how many emails I got from hockey people, other general managers last night, and that was their tone. They said, ‘Dean, the one thing about it, you can say those boys do not quit,’ and that’s the type of culture we’ve set out to build and we’ll continue to try and do.”