On April 17th, the Los Angeles Kings suited up for the first game of this year’s Stanley Cup playoff run. They faced off against the San Jose Sharks in the first round, and the Kings were once again pinned as underdogs. At the beginning of the season, many analysts claimed it was the Sharks’ year, and their regular season standings certainly didn’t undermine their predictions. The Sharks finished second in the conference and tied for the fourth best record in the league with the St. Louis Blues.
The Sharks first appearance in this year’s playoffs answered those high expectations. The Sharks scored three unanswered goals in the first period, two of which occurred during the last minute of play. Kings fans watched their team fall further into debt as the Sharks tallied two more goals, making the score 5-0. The Kings scored three goals in the third period, but it was too little too late as the game concluded with a 6-3 score.
Two more games left hockey fans wondering where the league’s stingiest defense had gone. The Kings’ next two losses read 7-2 and 4-3. The team that gave up only 174 goals in 82 games had given up 17 goals in only three games. The outlook was grim as only three teams in NHL history had ever come back from a three-game deficit in playoffs. Fortunately, the last time a comeback of that magnitude occurred was in 2010 when the Philadelphia Flyers, captained by current Kings, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, ended the Boston Bruins’ hopes of taking home the Cup.
The scene was set for a Hollywood-style comeback and the Kings didn’t disappoint. Game 4 was decided by a count of 6-3 Kings, which set the tone for the remaining four games in the series. Los Angeles dominated the next three games, holding the Sharks’ fifth ranked offense to only two goals for the remainder of the series. Los Angeles had momentum heading into round two against the number one team in the Western Conference, the Anaheim Ducks.
Game 1 of the Western Conference Semifinals opened with a goal to each team, but the second period saw a scoreless and heated standoff. Both teams tried desperately to score as time fell off the clock in the third period until finally Teemu Selanne backhanded a much needed goal past the Kings’ net minder. The Kings needed something extraordinary to get by the Ducks’ extremely tight defense. In the closing seconds of the game, Marian Gaborik batted a mid-air shot from the corner of the ice to tie the game at two goals apiece. The overtime period brought more of the same magic that GM Dean Lombardi was hoping for when he traded for Gaborik at the trade deadline. Anze Kopitar rifled a pass to Gaborik who redirected the puck into the net for the game winner.
Among the three goalies played by the Ducks, John Gibson stood out for being 20 years old. He was also a member of the U.S. National Development Program and the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League before he was brought to Anaheim on an emergency injury call up. He made his NHL regular season debut on April 7th with an 18-save shutout of the Vancouver Canucks. Gibson suited up for game 4 and shut out the Kings, shifting the defensive dynamics of the series. The two Southern California powerhouses needed a game seven to decide who would advance to the Western Conference Finals. Early in the game Los Angeles fired three goals past John Gibson and the Ducks faced defeat after being routed by the Kings in a dominating game seven performance.
The Chicago Blackhawks came to the Western Conference Finals as defending Stanley Cup champions, the number one team in the West, the number one offense in the league, and featuring arguably the best forward in the league in Jonathan Toews. The two teams missed each other during the Kings’ 2012 championship year, but the Blackhawks cleaned the floor with the Kings in the 2013 Western Conference final, before going on to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings hadn’t beaten the Blackhawks in a playoff series since their most recent rise to relevance in the hockey world, and were eager to prove something to the league this year.
The first game of the series began as Kings’ fans had feared it would. The Blackhawks came out on fire and scored one goal in every period to win the game 3-1. Game 2 followed a two-day break and Los Angeles seemed to be more rested. They kept up with the Blackhawks’ notorious speed and held them to a 2-1 lead after the second period. Despite trailing at the end of the second period, the Kings tallied five goals in the third period to take the game 6-2, and tie the series in Chicago.
The Kings defeated the Blackhawks a second and third time in the series, silencing critics who discredited the Kings’ success in the San Jose series as a fluke. In spite of the deficit, Chicago played the next two games to win. Patrick Kane, notorious for clinching overtime goals, including one to win the Stanley Cup against Mike Richards’ Flyers in 2010, reminded the Kings of his talent in Game 5. His pass to Michal Handzus’s backhand ended the game after two overtime periods. The outlook was dim for the Kings when the Blackhawks won game 6, especially considering that they came back to win from a 3-1 deficit against the Detroit Red Wings the previous year.
History seemed set to repeat itself as the Blackhawks scored twice in the first ten minutes of Game 7. Rising playoff star Brandon Saad scored five minutes in and Toews followed three minutes later, tapping a rebounding puck from Patrick Kane’s rear end, into an empty net. The Kings looked lifeless until Jeff Carter swatted a simple shot into the net. Less than a minute later, Justin Williams delivered a shot of life to his team, tying the game at two goals each. Williams had never lost a game seven in his career and had six goals and six assists in six game sevens. Twelve seconds later, the Blackhawks scored again, making the score 3-2, but L.A.’s heroics had already begun.
The emerging “70s line,” consisting of Tyler Toffoli, #73, veteran Jeff Carter, #77, and rookie Tanner Pearson, #70 had already been instrumental in the success of the Kings’ offense in the playoff run, accounting for 47 points in the first 21 games. Toffoli scored halfway through the second period to tie the game and tie himself for fourth in goals in only his second NHL playoff run.
Both teams continued trading chances until Los Angeles forward Trevor Lewis took a holding call, granting the Blackhawks a power play. Patrick Sharp, who had been relatively quiet in this series, made his presence known once again as he fired a rocket-like slap shot into the net to put the Blackhawks up 4-3.
The third period was one that weakened the hearts of both fan bases as the two teams fought to the death. Both teams played phenomenal defense and made outstanding plays. The Kings looked for the game-tying goal, and Marian Gaborik answered. Gaborik fired a backhand off Blackhawks’ goalie Corey Crawford to tie the game with just minutes remaining. The Kings held onto the tie and forced a Game 7 overtime.
More of the same intensity followed in the extra period, exhibiting a challenge for one another and the team to follow in the next round. In the end, a significant amount of skill and an even greater amount of luck found Alec Martinez when he let go of a wrist shot five minutes into overtime. His shot seemed to take forever to hit its mark as it bounced off of a King and then a Blackhawk before finally flipping over the goalie’s shoulder to win Game 7 for the Kings in overtime.
No other team has played and won three game sevens on the road in one year during the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Kings seem to have a flair for the dramatic and as they face off against the New York Rangers, there should be no doubt that this series will contain some fireworks. Both teams have clutch players, fantastic defense, and great leaders and coaches. All they need now is a little bit of luck.