Two months to the day before they skated the Stanley Cup around the Staples Center ice, the Los Angeles Kings were a No. 8 seed taking on the Presidents’ Trophy-winning and defending Western Conference champion Vancouver Canucks.
On the night of April 11, Dustin Penner buried the winning goal in a 4-2 win in Vancouver on a puck that had caromed off Jeff Carter’s deftly angled skate, marking the first of 16 wins that turned the franchise into California royalty.
“It seems like ages ago,” Penner said. “We got into the playoffs by the skin of our teeth, but we knew once we were in, (we) could come together. We had the guys in the room. We had the competitive spirit. We may have surprised a few people outside of our locker room, but no one inside of it.”
Though it provides hope for underdogs across all sports, it’s not entirely fair to think of these Kings as the little guys, not with the talent throughout the roster, the size, speed, goaltending and hockey acumen so thoroughly intertwined throughout Darryl Sutter’s lineup.
In winning 75 percent of their playoff games against three divisional winners and the Eastern Conference champions, the story of the Kings’ run through the 2012 postseason will be more about exhaustive playoff dominance than about any type of Cinderella story.
They’re not the 1988 Oilers, who went 16-2, but really, who is? This Los Angeles team that won 10 consecutive playoff road games — 12 if you count a pair of wins in San Jose 14 months ago — showed its own flair in winning one of the most coveted trophies in all of sports.
“It’s awesome. I’m just happy to be a part of it,” Trevor Lewis said, adding that he had dreamed about this day since he was a child. “It’s such a great group, such a good family in there. To do it for this group, it’s unbelievable.
“I don’t even know how to put it in words. It’s unbelievable. There’s no better feeling in the world.”
In a matchup between two teams boasting exceptional depth, it was LA’s role players and unsung heroes that more effectively rose to the challenge in the series the Kings won in six games, culminating in a 6-1 home victory Monday night in which you could feel all the demons — err, Devils — being exorcised for two and a half hours.
Aided by Steve Bernier’s five-minute major and game misconduct for boarding Rob Scuderi behind the Kings’ net — a penalty that allowed Los Angeles to score three times — Lewis scored twice and Dwight King added a pair of assists as part of a trio with Jarret Stoll that combined for five points in the clincher.
Colin Fraser was another integral member of the team’s depth, cohesion and devotion to executing Sutter’s system. Despite recording 19 points in 70 games with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2009-10, he only cracked Joel Quenneville’s roster three times in the postseason and was not in uniform in Philadelphia when Patrick Kane’s overtime winner sealed Chicago’s first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
Did Fraser, who appeared in a pair of WHL championships with the Red Deer Rebels and won the 2005 world junior championship alongside Sidney Crosby — along with Mike Richards and Jeff Carter — feel that this Kings team had the hardware to be hoisting the hardware when he joined the team a year ago during a time he was rehabbing a potentially career-ending foot injury?
“100 percent,” Fraser answered. “I called my dad the day I got traded and I said I was traded to the Kings. He said, ‘How do you feel?’ I said, ‘Good. We’ve got a chance to win.’ And that was at the end of June, a year ago. They had just traded for Richards.”
“I didn’t know what was going to happen with myself, with a broken foot and damaged goods and the whole nine, but I had a good meeting with Dean [Lombardi] and Ron Hextall probably midway through October, and they told me to hang in there a little bit longer, and I did, and here we are today. We won. It’s obviously good advice from them. Everything happens for a reason, and it worked out for me.”
Another player whose career resurgence was capped off by a Cup is rookie Jordan Nolan. Nolan was traded twice in his junior career before being selected by the Kings in the seventh and final round of the 2009 NHL Draft. He and appeared in both AHL and ECHL games before winning a cup less than two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday.
“I went through a lot of tough times when I was younger,” Nolan said. “I had to make a lot of changes of the ice, and I stuck with the program. I dedicated my life to my profession, and it all definitely worked out.”
“I started the year in the American League, got a concussion and came back, but I was struggling a little bit. LA came down to watch me, the next thing I know, me and Kinger were going up. Wasn’t sure if it was a week or two weeks. We stuck in the lineup the whole time. We contributed in the playoffs, and to be champions right now is just remarkable.”
“I dedicated everything I have to hockey, and I definitely made a lot of changes off ice.”
Another fellow 1989-born skater who celebrated his first Stanley Cup grew up a fanatical Kings fan in London, Ontario. Drew Doughty, whose improvement throughout the second half of the season and whose poise and confidence throughout the postseason was reflected in the team’s airtight defensive systems, always has had steadfast backing by a Los Angeles Kings legend.
“Hopefully for him, he can get his name on that Cup many times with us,” Hall of Fame left wing and Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille said of Doughty. “He’s an amazing player. He was a force all playoffs. He’s a winner, just like Mike Richards and these guys. They showed it. It’s been incredible.”
Robitaille also was cognizant of the team’s sterling future — only Penner, Stoll, Fraser and the injured Scott Parse are unrestricted free agents, and there may be enough cap space to potentially retain all four.
“We feel we’re set up for a while,” Robitaille said. “Our best players are our youngest guys. We’re a young team. This is amazing, and we’re going to enjoy this some, and then we’ll worry about next year next week. It’s incredible. What a feeling.”
And, of course, there are the die-hard fans who have attended games at Long Beach Arena, the Sports Arena, the Forum and Staples Center since the NHL’s expansion in 1967. For them, all previous transgressions, curses and illegal sticks have been forgiven, wiped clean, exonerated but not forgotten.
“The way they cheered for the last 10, 15 minutes, it’s a feeling that you’re going to chase for the rest of your career,” Penner said.
Considering the makeup of this team heading into their first title defense, the Kings likely won’t have to chase that feeling for another 45 years.