So it is finally happening, hockey's Freeway Series, the one Kings center Jarret Stoll thought was going to occur last year after Los Angeles held up its end of the equation.
"I remember us watching Game 7 last year between Anaheim and Detroit and we were kind of hoping for that matchup," said Stoll, on a conference call Thursday, the day after the Kings scored a historic come-from-behind victory over the San Jose Sharks in the Western Conference quarterfinals.
The Kings became the fourth team in NHL history to overcome a 3-0 series deficit to win and the reward is a date with their Southern California rivals, the Anaheim Ducks, with Game 1 on Saturday. Until now, the real rivals for the Kings have been the San Jose Sharks, the Vancouver Canucks and, more recently, the St. Louis Blues.
Anaheim? Barely even Frenemies.
"We know them very well. Sometimes, you skate together in the summers and with the lockout, we skated together quite a bit — but it's going to be a whole new animal now, with playing them in the playoffs," Stoll said. "They obviously had a great team and had a great year, but we feel we have done a lot of good things too.
"I'm looking forward to it. I think everybody in the room is. We were talking about it [Wednesday] night, probably five minutes after the game ended. You just get ready to go again. You get reenergized right away and you move on."
Kings President and General Manager Dean Lombardi reflected on the San Jose series and the road ahead in the Western Conference.
"We're going into another war zone here," he said Thursday afternoon to The Times. "Everyone knows this conference and it's never going to get any easier. It's just like last year. St. Louis, a war. San Jose, a war, and this will be no different.
"It's pretty neat. They're a really good team. It's like Mets-Yankees. We've never had that in the West. There's Devils-Rangers. Rangers-Islanders. This is the first time."
Stoll and Kings Coach Darryl Sutter both reiterated a point that a lot of players made in the lead-up to the outdoor game at Dodger Stadium in January — that there is nothing like a playoff series between two teams to turn a manufactured rivalry into the real thing.
This is a different era compared to Sutter's playing days when there wasn't nearly the same collegiality with rival players.
"We've seen that before, with the Calgary-Edmonton thing and probably some of those East Coast teams, where until you play each other in the playoffs, there's not really a rivalry," said Sutter. "That was a big reason the league wanted to go to divisions — to get those rivalries. If you look at this, it's exactly what everybody wanted."
One of the best things about a Freeway Series is that the clubs, for the first time in their histories, get to commute by car or bus to the visiting building, something Eastern Conference teams have done for years. But Sutter noted that even though the cornerstones of the Kings — from goaltender Jonathan Quick to defenseman Drew Doughty to forwards Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Jeff Carter — were all involved in the Olympics and the travel that involved, the Kings handled it very well.
"If you look at our team, we were one of the best clubs in the league after the Olympic break," said Sutter. "Our team is very well-schooled in getting the travel part of it. They manage it well, they handle it well and we trust our players, our group, to tell you what they want, and that's what you have to do."
The Kings have advanced to the second round for the third consecutive season, and only the New York Rangers can share that distinction. That raises the question about the makeup of the Kings — and the notion that they are built for playoffs.
"We're a good hockey team," said Stoll. "We have a great goaltender. Our defense can play various types of games. They can skate. They can play the skilled game. They can shut teams down. You saw what happened in this series against San Jose — the last three or four games, it was pretty special what our defense and goaltender did."
Stoll noted the Kings' depth at forward has improved.
"Two guys that added a lot to our team two years ago when we won were Dwight King and Jordan Nolan. Now, this year, you've got Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, who are really coming into their own. They are big, big reasons why we're moving on here."
Lombardi was asked what he thought when the Kings trailed 3-0 in the series against his old franchise, the Sharks. Sutter also was his coach in San Jose when Lombardi was GM there.
"We all know Darryl well enough to know that he's not going to tell you anything just to pump you up," Lombardi said. "It's about what he believes. I remember him with that steely stare.
"He said, 'I can guarantee you one thing: We're not going quietly.' He looked at me and said, 'We can still win this thing.'"
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