It was the night when a population that has spent 45 years begging and pleading for sports’ most enduring trophy felt comfortable enough to loudly demand it.
“We ... want ... the ... Cup,” rang the chant at Staples Center, washing over nearly 20,000 black sweaters, rising into rafters stocked with the silver streamers that would soon engulf them.
It was the night when a population that has spent 45 years on the fringes of the Los Angeles sports community stormed the landscape with glow sticks flashing, towels waving, a celebratory cry accompanying them to the threshold of a championship.
“Hey, hey ... hey, hey, hey,” the fans sang after all four of the Kings goals, louder each time, drowning out those ancient feelings of dread, running the New Jersey Devils halfway back to Hackensack.
“It was one of those lifetime moments that you never forget,” said the Kings’ Dustin Penner. “I never heard it like this here before.”
Never heard it. Never felt it. Never seen it. Never, never, never has there been anything like this in the history of Los Angeles’ rich and entitled sports franchises, a team that won fewer than half its regular-season games storming to within one victory of its first title.
This is the 2001 Lakers if they were an eighth-seeded team that didn’t make the playoffs until the final week. This is the 1988 Dodgers if they had swept the New York Mets and the Oakland Athletics. This is the 1990 Loyola Marymount basketball team if they had won it all.
Lord, this is the Stanley Cup trophy now close enough to touch, the Kings’ 4-0 victory over the Devils on Monday giving hockey’s unlikeliest potential champion a three-games-to-none lead in a final series that could end here Wednesday.
“This is a chance to end a lot of frustration for a lot of people in this city,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said.
In the first Stanley Cup Final game in Staples Center history, that frustration resurfaced during a difficult first period in which the Kings were lucky to escape with their skate laces, penalties forcing them to endure a five-on-three disadvantage for nearly a minute while fans sat in a nervous hush.
But they survived to keep the game scoreless, thanks mostly to the penalty-killing team of Jarret Stoll, Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell that worked ugly but efficiently in front of brilliant goalie Jonathan Quick.
“Me, Greenie and Mitchie were hacking and whacking; it wasn’t pretty, but it was the only thing we could do,” said Stoll afterward in an interview that was notable for two reasons.
First, because the media had filled the Kings’ regular dressing room, Stoll was speaking in an NBA visitors’ locker room, standing where I usually interview guys like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce this time of year. The Kings will surely never supplant the Lakers’ popularity here, but at least they have momentarily tossed them out of the building.
Second, the interview was notable because when is the last time you have heard a highly paid professional athlete refer to teammates as Greenie and Mitchie in the same sentence?
“Of course, we couldn’t have done our job without Quickie,” added Stoll, completing the fourth-grade nickname triple play.
This is why it’s so easy for folks who don’t love hockey to love the Kings. Even amid the greatness of their 15 wins in 17 postseason games, the Kings continue to remind us that while athletes in other sports claim they play with the joy of children, these guys really do.
“After that first period, I was like, ‘Thank God for the intermission,’” said Stoll. “You go inside, get some Gatorade in you, get some water in you, and keep telling yourself that you’re all right.”
With the Devils deflated by their failure to capitalize, the Kings were better than all right. The scoreless tie was soon broken by an Alec Martinez scoring poke barely five minutes into the second period, and the beatdown was on, goals and chants and celebrity sightings turning a purple fingernail-biting game into a raucous pep rally.
“We took the game over, and it became electric,” said Stoll.
It was Martinez scoring his first goal of the playoffs, meaning that 17 Kings have now scored in the postseason for an organization that has barely had 17 memorable players in its history.
“Just taking a whack at it,” said Martinez afterward, wearing a black shirt that read, “Grit” on the front and “Gritty” on the back. What Kings lack in originality, they make up for in truth.
Then it was Anze Kopitar scoring on a three-man rush that my esteemed colleague Helene Elliott, staring wide-eyed at the ice, described simply as “gorgeous.” Later it was Jeff Carter scoring on a puck dug out from the behind the goal from Mike Richards, then, finally, it was Justin Williams juking the Devils’ Mark Fayne, bouncing the puck off Martin Brodeur’s pads, then scoring it.
The giant air horn blew again, sweeping lights bathed the rink in red again, and some of the toughest fans in this town began dancing. After which, of course, they began jeering.
“Mar-ty, Mar-ty,” they chanted, brave enough now to taunt perhaps the best goalie in history, because in this series, he’s not even the best goalie in the building, that title belonging to the record-setting Quick.
The night ended with Will Ferrell on the big screen, leading cheers with, “Go, Kings, go.… I’m losing my mind…. You need to lose your mind!”