The Kings' calm amid the playoff storm carried them to Stanley Cup

The Kings' calm amid the playoff storm carried them to Stanley Cup
San Jose Sharks players had plenty to celebrate against goaltender Jonathan Quick (32) and the Kings, who came back from a 3-0 deficit to win the first-round playoff series in a seventh game in San Jose. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

It was April 22 and the Kings had just lost their first three playoff games against the San Jose Sharks, with their only consolation being that Game 3 had been close — a 4-3 overtime decision — instead of the blowouts they'd endured in the first two games of the first-round series.

To put it mildly, the Kings' prospects of advancing did not look good at that point.


"I don't know about a sense of shock. It's certainly not satisfying," center Anze Kopitar said after the Kings dropped into a playoff hole only three other NHL teams before them had escaped.

"We've all won here and we know how it feels and we've been on the other end and we've lost, and now we've got to regroup and take it one game at a time and we'll see."

Coach Darryl Sutter said he saw some encouraging signs in that third defeat, mainly that his best players were more effective than they had been in the first two games, but it sounded as if he was grasping at straws. The Sharks had gotten goals from 11 players and had scored 17 goals in three games on what had been the NHL's top defensive team during the regular season.

"This team has stayed largely intact for five or six years, led by a core that has grown up together and lifted the Stanley Cup together but now must consider the possibility it will be broken up in order to fix the weaknesses that led to this stunning playoff deficit," a columnist wrote.

"While it's great that they get along and sacrifice for each other, their struggles against the Sharks suggest this mix needs some stirring and new ingredients. …The mix simply isn't right anymore."

Strong stuff.

That dire pronouncement came from me, and although a few readers have suggested I wrote it to inspire the Kings to turn things around, I can't pretend that was my ulterior motive. I wrote it because that's how bad things looked — and I wasn't alone in thinking the worst.

Justin Williams, so strong a leader throughout a march that ended when the Kings defeated the New York Rangers on Friday to win a five-game Cup Final, acknowledged he wasn't exactly brimming with optimism after his team fell into that 0-3 hole.

Minutes after he was handed the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the playoffs, Williams was asked how he would have responded if someone had told him on April 22 that he shouldn't worry, the Kings were going to win the Cup.

"I would have punched you in the face maybe," he said, triggering laughter at his post-victory news conference.

"Things looked bleak for us. But we were able to channel our inner will. We just didn't want to go away. The term 'one at a time' certainly applied to us that series."

Their inner will proved more formidable than anyone outside their locker room could have known. I was right in predicting the Kings would defeat San Jose in seven games but never expected it to unfold as it did, or that they'd display such great resolve and get such timely scoring.

Sutter did change the mix a bit. He moved a struggling Dustin Brown back up to the first line with Marian Gaborik and Anze Kopitar, put Williams alongside Jarret Stoll and Dwight King, and placed Jeff Carter at center between young wingers Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli. The move created depth at center and speed on the wings, and the Kings capitalized on that.

In addition, Sutter had used penalty-prone winger Jordan Nolan in two of the first three games but scratched him from the lineup the rest of that series. Nolan played only one more game the rest of the way. Sutter also called upon defenseman Matt Greene in Game 7 after playing him only once in the first six games, a move made necessary when Willie Mitchell sustained a knee injury in Game 6. Greene sometimes struggled but was magnificent in the Kings' Game 7 victory at Chicago in the Western Conference finals and was a tireless leader.

As that first-round series went on and they repeatedly avoided elimination, the Kings shattered the Sharks' fragile psyche. There's usually little momentum from game to game in the playoffs, but the Kings began to build confidence and develop an unbreakable sense of calm during what should have been their darkest moments.

"One and two were a little out of character for us," goaltender Jonathan Quick said of the first two games against San Jose, in which he was abandoned to face more outnumbered rushes than he had probably faced all season.

"They kind of pushed that upon us. They forced us to make errors and mistakes and you've got to tip your cap to them on that. Games 3, 4, right on through, we got back to what we're used to doing."

They routed the Sharks, 5-1, in Game 7 but had no time to relax before facing the top-seeded Ducks. The Kings won the first two games but then had another three-game losing streak before they rebounded to win the last two games, including a 6-2 thrashing in Game 7 at Anaheim.

"With this whole group we battled through so many things," defenseman Drew Doughty said.

They battled past the Chicago Blackhawks too, becoming the first NHL team to win three Game 7s on the road in one playoff year. The Blackhawks had unseated them as Cup champions last season. The Kings saw this victory as poetic justice, hockey style.

"Once we won the first one, all we wanted to do was win another one. We kind of messed that up last year and we lost the Cup to another team and we wanted it back so bad," Doughty said on the ice Friday at Staples Center. "And we felt like it was ours. So we got her back and we're happy now."

There will be changes this summer. Mitchell, 37, and Greene, 31, are eligible for unrestricted free agency, and one — or both — might not be back. Gaborik, who scored a playoff-high 14 goals, will command big dollars if he reaches free agency on July 1. General Manager Dean Lombardi likely will make some tweaks because everyone else in the West will try to get stronger and will target the Kings next season. To stay the same would be the same as falling behind.

This playoff run was exhausting and exhilarating, splendidly tense and ultimately, for the Kings, triumphant. "Your heart doesn't get tired," Doughty said in explaining the team's resilience.

After witnessing so many rallies, after seeing Doughty grow up and Jake Muzzin blossom into a capable defenseman and Pearson and Toffoli learn how to win at a young age, I won't underestimate this group again. Nor should anyone else.

Stirred but not shaken, the Kings climbed from the deepest deficit to hockey's highest heights and became champions for the second time in three seasons. It's as real as their chances of doing this again and again.

Twitter: @helenenothelen