CHICAGO — The saying goes that history always repeats itself. The Los Angeles Kings, sometimes down but never out, proved that notion with another historic Game 7 playoff win.
The Kings, the team that boasted 18 players undefeated in Game 7s, became the first team to win three Game 7s in one postseason when they eliminated the Chicago Blackhawks with a 5-4 overtime win, Sunday night at the United Center in the Western Conference Finals.
An unbelievable feat is only believable for a team like the Kings, who overcame a 3-0 series deficit to advance out of the first round, a 3-2 deficit in the second and avenged last season’s conference finals loss in Chicago to earn their second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in three seasons.
"It’s kind of hard to put it into words right now," said Kings center Anze Kopitar. "Deep down we definitely felt we could do this. Coming from behind the whole game, being in a loud rink. Chicago’s playing good. To get it done really shows the character we have in this room and that really is priceless."
It took tremendous character and tremendous resilience. The Kings overcame another 2-0 first-period deficit, tied the game three times to put it into overtime — the second straight overtime contest at the United Center — before Alec Martinez put the puck in the back of the net 5 minutes and 47 seconds into overtime.
Justin Williams, aka Mr. Game 7, came up with the puck on the back boards and fed it to Martinez at the point. With Jarret Stoll screening in front of Corey Crawford, Martinez launched a wrist shot that took a bounce off the stick of Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy and into the net for the decisive, game-winning goal.
Mayhem ensued on the Kings bench while the United Center went deathly quiet.
"I didn’t really even know it went in until I saw Stolly going bananas," he said. "He was getting pretty excited so that’s when I started celebrating, too. I didn’t see it go in, I just saw it went off a couple bodies. I just tried to get it through and fortunately it went in."
It was the defenseman’s ninth point of the postseason.
"It’s not always going to be your top guys that make the plays to win games," said Drew Doughty. "If it wasn’t, we knew it was going to come from someone like Marty."
But they needed the top players as well.
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In the first period it was Jeff Carter, who saw a bouncing puck by captain Dustin Brown and batted it over Crawford, just barely keeping his stick under the crossbar. Late in the third, it was Marian Gaborik, the league’s playoff goal-scoring leader, who tied the game and goaltender Jonathan Quick, after a rough start, regained his composure to deny the Blackhawks of all chances in the third period and in overtime.
"He made a couple saves in overtime and that’s all we needed," Kopitar said. "He’s there when we need him. I think it was about time we chipped in and saved his ass for once. Plenty of time he’s saved our ass."
They needed Doughty, who finished the series with seven points, on the penalty kill as the Kings wracked up the minutes with five minors. They needed every bit of each defenseman as injuries plagued the defensive corps throughout the postseason and they needed their two rookie wingers, Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli, who combined for five goals and five assists against the defending Stanley Cup champions.
"You need everybody when you get to Game 7," said head coach Darryl Sutter. "You’re not into the individual part of it. There’s always guys that score big goals, make big plays. But you need everybody in your lineup."
Through 21 games, the Kings have been irrepressible. Never did the thought of a loss enter anyone’s mind and the team remained unwavering in that collective belief, giving them a mental edge and further adding to their playoff aura.
"Last year I felt like their team was a little bit better, but this year we felt like we were the better team," Doughty said. "We were just never going to let that go away, we were always going to believe that we could come back, that we could win …
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"I know when they find a way, L.A., they’re never out," said Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville. "They’re never out of a hockey game, they’re never out of a series. They’re dangerous."
It was an end to an epic series that no one wanted to see end. Drama, emotion, fireworks, and two of the greatest hockey teams of recent years hanging on until the bitter end. The Stanley Cup Final may not even be an act suitable to follow this one.
"It was just an honest series," Doughty said. "Battles in the corners, there’s a lot of goals — everything, there was everything in this series. There was star players on both sides, star goalies. It was a lot of fun.