SAN JOSE — Goodbye, Northern California. Hello, Southern California.
A playoff comeback for the ages was sealed in dramatic fashion by the Kings as they beat the San Jose Sharks, 5-1, on Wednesday in Game 7, becoming only the fourth team in NHL history to win a series after losing the first three games.
They will play their close neighbors, the Ducks, for the first time in the playoffs, the second round starting Saturday in Anaheim at 5 p.m. Finally, in the playoffs, can a legitimate rivalry truly start.
Not only did the Kings get there after dropping the first three games to the Sharks, but they were forced to win twice at SAP Center in San Jose, an often disconcerting arena for the Kings.
"History is for us when you look back and your career is done and when we look at stats," said Kings forward Justin Williams, who assisted on the game-winning goal, by Anze Kopitar at 18 minutes 39 seconds of the second period, which made it 2-1. "It's really not for us. ... Fortunately, for us, we had our game going in time that it wasn't too late. Four in row. We'll make a note not to do that again."
San Jose Coach Todd McLellan said his team was more competitive in last year's seven-game loss to the Kings than it was this year.
"We were a lot closer last year than we were this year," McLellan said. "We're kidding ourselves if we think we were closer this year, just because it went seven games.
"I don't know what it was, (outscored, 18-5) in the last four games. It wasn't even close. We had a core group of individuals that didn't get on the score sheet. Last year was a lot closer than it was this year."
Kings defenseman Drew Doughty thought the series started to shift in Game 3 at Staples Center when they lost in overtime.
"We felt like we could have kind of won that game," he said. "They kind of got a really lucky goal, they actually got two lucky goals that game. They got one really lucky one in overtime. Instead of seeing sorry for ourselves and taking it that way we were just more determined to get that back. We knew that eventually that some luck would start turning our way and it did."
Wednesday was the final hurdle of an amazing two weeks for the Kings.
Just call Game 7, the Comeback at the Cage, after the Kings fell behind by a goal early in the second period and the spirited crowd tried to pull the Sharks along for the ride. But the underachieving Sharks would end up going 0 for 6 on the power play.
The Cage is what Kings Coach Darryl Sutter called the arena in his unique style.
You can say the strength of the well-balanced Kings comes down to three players: goalie Jonathan Quick, defenseman Drew Doughty and Selke Trophy nominee Kopitar.
With the game on the line — the season veering this way, and then that way — they each made pivotal plays to keep the Kings in it and finally ahead for good.
Doughty scored the Kings' first goal with a shot from the left circle, at 4:57 of the second period, tying it, 1-1, on the power play. His close friend, Sharks center Logan Couture had gone off for elbowing.
That dented the atmosphere, and Quick made perhaps the save of the series about midway through the second period, somehow stopping Patrick Marleau at the right post with a glove save after thwarting Joe Pavelski. The NHL's situation room reviewed the play and the ruling was that there was no goal.
Kopitar's goal displayed his two-way talents as he got the play started and finished it off with a backhander up high past Sharks goalie Antti Niemi, having taken a cross-ice pass from Williams. That made it 2-1, and the Kings took the air out of the building with a some slick work between Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli at 4:40 of the third period, Toffoli making it 3-1.
By the third period, "Beat L.A." sounded more like a plaintive request, rather than a rousing chant.
"It was a result of us staying together as a group of guys," said Kings captain Dustin Brown, who scored an empty-net goal to make it 4-1. "When you've gone to the top of the mountain with the same group of guys it's a little bit easier when you're at the bottom to come up. That's what a lot of this team is about, our guys who have stuck together and played together for years and there's a belief system."
Kings center Mike Richards is now part of two teams to have rallied from a 3-0 deficit to win a series. He was with the Philadelphia Flyers when they pulled off the feat against Boston in 2010. Kings teammate Jeff Carter was on that Flyers team, too, but did not play in that series. The other two teams to do it were the Toronto Maple Leafs and the New York Islanders.
Richards was asked by a CBC TV crew what that meant for him.
"I guess that I fall behind in series, 3-0, too much," Richards said, smiling.
Williams is 5-0 in Game 7s and has 10 points, five of them goals.
Earlier, he talked about the Kings playing their best at the most crucial junctures.
"That's when I feel our team plays best — when we have something to lose," Williams said. "We don't want to go home. We don't want an early summer . We enjoy playing when the weather start to get really hot."
It was 90 degrees shortly before game-time.
Williams almost foreshadowed Doughty becoming such a big factor. Doughty missed the last few games of the regular season because of an injured shoulder and got better as the series went along.
"You underestimate adrenaline and will," Williams said. "Drew has all those things. He's not going to deter anything from him from being great.
"He's not [young]. He's had the experience of playing on the biggest stages of hockey."
Sutter was relieved to see the Kings come back from a 3-0 deficit, but the historical aspect of the achievement was lost on him.
"Well, I hope I don't have to do it again," he said. "It's hard. It is tough to do. Everybody talked about how we got our (butts) kicked in Games 1 and 2. We thought we played pretty good in Game 2. Game 3 was an overtime game which we could have won. We thought Game 6 could have been a clinching game for us....The history part doesn't mean ... that's no big deal to me at all."
Ducks-Kings Western Conference semifinals schedule
Game 1: Saturday at Ducks, 5 p.m.
Game 2: Monday at Ducks, 7 p.m.
Game 3: May 8 at Kings, 7 p.m.
Game 4: May 10 at Kings, TBA
Game 5: May 12 at Ducks, TBA*
Game 6: May 14 at Kings, TBA*
Game 7: May 16 at Ducks, TBA*