The Kings' Stanley Cup playoff run appeared to be over before it had really begun. Sloppy on defense and helpless against the speed of the San Jose Sharks, the Kings lost the first three games of their opening-round playoff series and were one loss from going home for the summer.
But Coach Darryl Sutter saw something that few people outside the team's tight circle could glimpse: an air of resilience, a resolve that wouldn't be shaken. He said they weren't done. Coaches always say that.
"It's a tough hill," Sutter said, "and we won't go quietly away, that's for sure."
They didn't go away at all. They rallied and won the next four games and the series, setting a tone for a playoff journey that was as nerve-racking as it was unique.
After fighting off elimination seven times in three rounds, the Kings on Friday won the Stanley Cup Final with a 3-2 double-overtime victory over the New York Rangers before a delirious crowd at Staples Center. For the Kings, who poured off their bench to engulf each other in bear hugs before passing the Cup from hand to hand, it was an emphatic ending to a wild, two-month ride that took them through many twists and three Game 7 showdowns before they earned their second championship in three seasons.
"We've been down a lot this postseason, we've been up, been in some exciting games, some long games," center Jarret Stoll said on the eve of the team's first chance to clinch.
"We just keep playing, trying to find a way to win."
This is a strange, new world for hockey fans, one in which the Kings — a symbol of NHL futility from their birth in 1967 until they won their first Cup two years ago — have become perennial contenders for hockey's greatest prize.
"I think people can look at us a little differently now that we've done what we've done in the last couple years," said defenseman Jake Muzzin, one of the young players who took on increased responsibility and handled suffocating pressure with impressive ease.
What they did this spring was astounding. It was also in distinct contrast with two years ago, when they cruised to the championship with only four losses in four rounds.
After being pushed to the brink by San Jose, the Kings won the first two games of their second-round series against the top-seeded Anaheim Ducks but lost the next three, putting themselves in peril again. Once more, the Kings responded forcefully, with a 2-1 victory at home to tie the series and routing the Ducks, 6-2, at Anaheim in Game 7.
"It's in this room. We don't look outside too much. We believe in this room, and that's the most important thing," said center Anze Kopitar.
"We trust in each other, and when you throw a little desperation and urgency on top of it, we're playing pretty good hockey."
They needed better than good against the defending Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference final. This time, the Kings took a 3-1 series lead but couldn't close out the Blackhawks and had to return to Chicago for a decisive seventh game at the jam-packed United Center.
The Kings' resilience won out again. Winger Marian Gaborik, a brilliant late-season acquisition by General Manager Dean Lombardi, tied the game with just over seven minutes left in regulation, and defenseman Alec Martinez won it with a shot that took a fortunate bounce off the shoulder of Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy 5 minutes and 47 seconds into sudden death.
Resilience became their trademark through the Cup Final. They fell behind by two goals in each of the first two games but won the opener, 3-2, and took a 5-4, double-overtime victory in Game 3 when defenseman Willie Mitchell's shot was redirected by captain Dustin Brown, who struggled most of the season but was a force in the playoffs.
The Kings reinvented themselves throughout their postseason ride. After ranking 26th among 30 teams in scoring during the regular season, they became a scoring machine in postseason play, led by Kopitar's league-leading 26 points and Gaborik's league-best 14 goals. The 11 goals the Kings scored in the first three games of the Cup Final came from 11 players, the ultimate balanced offense.
Spreading out their scoring helped them survive. If one player or one line was slumping, someone else picked up the slack.
None of this would have been possible without the deft moves made by Sutter, the gruff-voiced Alberta farmer whose brusque manner didn't hide his respect for his players. When the Kings hired him in December 2011, they were in danger of missing the playoffs. He led that group to the Cup as the No. 8 seed. Now, with the same core players and several upgrades up front, he and the Kings have two titles.
"I think we've grown a ton," defenseman Drew Doughty said of the team, but also describing his own maturation from a doughy kid into a fierce competitor. "The experience from that first run helped us a lot. Guys have gotten older, better. We've added pieces to the puzzle."
Acquiring Gaborik through a trade in March was a pivotal move. He had instant chemistry with Kopitar and gave the Kings a scoring threat on left wing, which they had lacked for a long time.
When Mitchell and fellow defenseman Robyn Regehr were injured during the playoffs, Sutter plugged in Jeff Schultz, who spent most of the season in the minor leagues, and went back to using Matt Greene, who had been pulled from the lineup. Greene responded with good efforts, blocking shots, killing penalties, and taking only a brief break to repair a bloody cut near his left eye in Game 1 of the Cup Final.
When Sutter wanted to balance the team's scoring and build strength down the middle, he put youngsters Tanner Pearson and Tyler Toffoli on either side of center Jeff Carter. Carter fed off the kids' energy and gave the two rookies an example to follow.
And when Sutter wanted to win those three Game 7s, he simply turned to right wing Justin Williams, who played his best when the pressure was highest. Williams had two goals and five points in the three decisive contests and 25 points overall, including the overtime winner against the Rangers in the first game of the Cup Final.
"He wants to compete so hard, so bad," Greene said of Williams, who won a championship in Carolina in 2006 before being traded to the Kings in March 2009.
"The bigger the games get, he's always showing up, making the big play."
The same was true of the Kings, no longer doormats but champions of the NHL.
Twitter: @helenenothelenCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun