No one saw this coming. Not this way, certainly, if there was any fuzzy vision of it happening at all.
The Los Angeles Kings, who ranked next-to-last in the NHL in scoring, who went through the turmoil of a mid-December coaching change and weren't assured of a playoff spot until the last weekend of the season, zoomed through the first three rounds of the playoffs before running into resistance from the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final.
Slowed but not stopped, the Kings prevailed Monday on their third try, skating off with a 6-1 victory at Staples Center and the first Stanley Cup championship since the franchise was born in 1967.
They won Game 6 of the best-of-seven Final by scoring three quick goals in the first period after the Devils were left short-handed for five minutes because of a major penalty. Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter and Trevor Lewis scored in a four-minute span and New Jersey never recovered.
The Kings were a team that couldn't seem to score more than two goals a game from October through April and subjected goaltender Jonathan Quick to extraordinary pressure that he endured stoically while compiling a career-best season and eye-popping postseason numbers.
A team that grew stale under Coach Terry Murray and had to lure Darryl Sutter away from his 3,000-acre farm in Canada to salvage its season. Sutter administered his unique brand of tough love, rebuilding the team's collective confidence and energizing its offense by adding an aggressiveness that players loved.
A team that had to make a significant trade to change the mix in late February and sent defenseman Jack Johnson to Columbus for Carter, who brought with him a long-term contract and questions about his work ethic. He answered all those questions and gave the offense a new and needed balance, enabling players to fit into roles that best suited them.
The Kings, who couldn't climb above eighth in the Western Conference, stunned the hockey world by losing only two games in the first three rounds of the playoffs and taking a 3-0 lead over New Jersey in the Final. The Devils, inspired by goalie Martin Brodeur, pushed back twice to prolong the agony for Kings fans, but the wait seemed only to make victory sweeter for the two dozen gap-toothed, banged-up, thickly bearded players who hoisted a trophy that's the most revered and among the most difficult to earn in professional sports.
No bruise was too painful for players to lift the 35-pound Cup high above their heads as fans wept and exulted at Staples Center and everywhere else hope resided. No player's arm was too tired to hug every teammate within reach and rejoice in the accomplishment that sometimes only they believed they could pull off.
Fans were on their feet and roaring for the last 10 minutes, savoring a moment some never thought they'd see. Some held up plastic inflatable replicas of the Stanley Cup, though they would see the real one soon enough.
As the final seconds ticked off the clock, players on the bench began jumping up and down in anticipation. At the buzzer, they tossed their sticks and gloves in the air and gathered in a happy pile in one corner, hugging and grinning as the sellout crowd roared its approval.
In the traditional ceremonial handshake line, Brodeur, ever classy even in the face of being denied a fourth championship, took time to embrace Quick and say a few words to him after the metaphorical passing of the torch from the 40-year-old former champion to the 26-year-old newly minted champion.
Though few outside their locker room had predicted it, the Kings had won the Cup and with it a slice of immortality, their names to be engraved on its silver face for eager eyes to find and proud fingers to trace for years to come.
"Definitely, this is the team we should have been all season, especially when Carts first got here," defenseman Drew Doughty said of the balance and scoring punch Carter brought to the Kings.
"That made our team the way it is now and we definitely didn't play the way we could until the playoffs started."
Once they got started, no one could stop them. They mowed down the No. 1-seeded Vancouver Canucks, No. 2-seeded St. Louis Blues and No. 3 Phoenix Coyotes before wrestling with the Devils, the best the East had to offer.
Their postseason performance was a true team effort, with 17 players scoring at least one goal and contributing in ways that didn't always show up on the score sheet.
Team captain Brown set an emphatic tone with his physicality and persistence and teamed with center Anze Kopitar on the superb penalty-killing unit, whose aggressiveness and skill produced five valuable goals. Winger Dustin Penner emerged from a season-long funk to become a clutch scorer in the early rounds. Brawny rookie forwards Dwight King and Jordan Nolan had their moments, and the fourth line, anchored by center Colin Fraser, fearlessly faced down opponents' top lines.
Doughty, shrugging off the self-imposed pressure of living up to the eight-year, $56-million contract he signed just before the season began, matured into a responsible defensive player and big-game standout. His end-to-end goal in Game 2 against New Jersey spurred suggestions he might be the next Bobby Orr. It was more than enough for the Kings that he was the first Drew Doughty.
Behind it all was Quick, winner of the Conn Smythe trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs. "He took himself to a new level and he's playing on another planet and that's what he expects," center Jarret Stoll said.
Perhaps most impressive were the NHL records the Kings set by winning 10 straight road games in one playoff year and 12 straight over two seasons, streaks that ended with Game 5 at New Jersey. Sutter, however, saw those feats as a necessity. "We're not a home-ice team," he said, matter-of-factly.
That kind of pragmatism struck a chord with his players from the moment he took over a team that ranked 11th in the West. They were invigorated by his passion and tireless preparation and respected his refusal to let them become complacent once they began winning. They didn't want to let each other down and they didn't want to hear Sutter bark if they let him down.
"There's always reminders, mostly from Darryl," Kopitar said. "As we all know, he's a pretty hard guy, so he always keeps us honest and accountable. That's one of the main things he brought into the dressing room when he came in."
And so a basically young group that had never won a playoff series together rampaged through three series and learned how to overcome adversity in the Final to win the Cup. No one saw it coming, at least not like this. But what a sight it was.