Devils-Kings Preview

Although Mike Richards has only been in Los Angeles for less

than a year, he has a pretty good idea what 45 years of simmering

frustration will sound like when his Kings take the ice with the

Stanley Cup nearly in reach.

”That’s probably one of the loudest rinks I’ve ever played in,

and it’s going to be even louder tomorrow,” the center said

Sunday, already anticipating the energy at Staples Center for Game

3 of the Stanley Cup finals on Monday night.

A coronation just feels imminent for these Kings, who opened the

finals by adding two more victories in New Jersey to the longest

run of road perfection in NHL playoff history – 10-0 this season,

and 12-0 dating to last season.

Now that the Kings are back home on the West Coast, the Stanley

Cup has never been closer to going Hollywood.

Los Angeles is two wins away from claiming the franchise’s first

title and burying 4 1/2 decades of monotonous ineptitude

interrupted only by short stretches of brilliance from Wayne

Gretzky, Marcel Dionne and a few other stars who wore the club’s

ever-changing uniforms – including another switch to that

eye-catching ”LA” logo before this season.

Hockey has always had a steadfast fan base out here among the

movie stars and palm trees, but those fans are conditioned to

accept small victories as fuel for their faith. These Kings have

abruptly erased this club’s tedious reputation with a 14-2 playoff

run that has few equals in NHL history.

”I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team like this where

everybody is locked in,” said Jeff Carter, whose persistence on

the puck led to the overtime goal that won Game 2. ”Everybody

knows what they need to do to go out on the ice and get it

done.”

It’s impossible to measure how many casual Los Angeles fans have

resumed their interest in hockey, digging into their closets for

the purple-and-gold Kings hat or that old No. 99 jersey before

jumping on a bandwagon that’s sagging under the weight of witnesses

to this team’s brilliance. Kings gear can be spotted everywhere

from Santa Monica to downtown, from Dodger Stadium to even Angel

Stadium, which sits across a freeway from the archrival Anaheim

Ducks’ home rink.

Yet the Kings are acutely aware their final job is only half

done. Coach Darryl Sutter, the unlikely architect of this playoff

push, spoke with his players on the cross-continental flight home

from Newark about the importance of improving even now, about

realizing their two-month effort isn’t over.

And for all of Los Angeles’ astonishing success in this charmed

postseason surge, the New Jersey Devils have ample reason to

believe their own Stanley Cup dreams aren’t dead.

No playoff opponent has tested the Kings as thoroughly as the

Devils, who would have needed only a stray deflection or a shot

under the crossbar to reverse this series’ results. New Jersey has

limited the Kings’ shots, tested star goalie Jonathan Quick and

twice forced extra time by holding Los Angeles to just one

regulation goal in each game.

”A big win tomorrow would definitely change everything

around,” goalie Martin Brodeur said after the Devils’ brief

workout at the Kings’ training complex Sunday. ”I think we’re

going the right direction. We’re playing well. We’re not getting

outplayed. We’re in a position to turn this series around.”

Even the Kings realize New Jersey’s play so far would win many

series. It hasn’t been enough in this one, but it’s far from

finished.

”Jersey has been really successful on the forecheck against

us,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown, who went scoreless in New

Jersey and hasn’t scored a goal since the opener of the Western

Conference finals. ”They’ve been more successful than any team

against us. We’re probably spending more time in our defensive zone

against them than any other team. They’re really making it tough on

us.”

New Jersey outplayed Los Angeles for long stretches of its 2-1

overtime loss in Game 2, but the Devils were denied by Quick’s

goaltending and that crossbar, which got in the way of Ilya

Kovalchuk’s open shot with about 18 seconds left in regulation

after Brown’s atrocious giveaway nearly handed the game to New

Jersey.

The Devils also can draw solace from the fact that an 0-2

comeback in the finals was accomplished just last year by the

Boston Bruins, who won four of the final five games to take the

Stanley Cup from the Vancouver Canucks.

”We’ve always been able to bounce back, and that’s what we’ll

try to do,” forward Travis Zajac said. ”We’re not going to get

out of position and try to do too much because we’re behind. We’ve

been behind in a series before, and come back and won it

before.”

But the Kings have shown no serious signs that this 7 1/2-week

run of spectacular postseason play is about to end. Look at it this

way: The Kings haven’t even fallen behind in eight of their last 10

games, trailing only in the final two games of the Western

Conference finals against Phoenix.

The last four games of Los Angeles’ postseason have been its

toughest stretch, with a shutout loss to the Coyotes followed by

three straight overtime victories. But the Kings always seem to

find the right matchup, make the right change and get the lucky

break that puts them through to the next stage, outscoring their

opponents 45-24 along the way.

This is just not normal to the long-suffering fans of the Kings,

who still remember how their only other appearance in Game 2 of the

Stanley Cup finals went wrong when Marty McSorley was penalized for

an illegal stick in 1993. The Kings lost that game and the next

three to Montreal, and they haven’t been back to the finals

since.

In fact, they had won one playoff series in the past 17 seasons

before this charmed summer when everything changed.

Even with two wins still to go, the Kings realize they’ve made

history.

”It’s been a long time for these guys,” said Carter, who

arrived in February in a trade that reunited him with Richards, his

friend and longtime Flyers teammate. ”I think it would mean the

world to this franchise. They’ve done a great job of sticking to

the plan here and building this organization, and this would be the

reward.”