LOS ANGELES — Although Mike Richards has only been in Los Angeles for less than a year, he has a pretty good idea what 45 years of simmering frustration will sound like when his Kings take the ice with the Stanley Cup nearly in reach.
“That’s probably one of the loudest rinks I’ve ever played in, and it’s going to be even louder tomorrow,” the center said Sunday, already anticipating the energy at Staples Center for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals on Monday night.
A coronation just feels imminent for these Kings, who opened the finals by adding two more victories in New Jersey to the longest run of road perfection in NHL playoff history — 10-0 this season, and 12-0 dating to last season.
Now that the Kings are back home on the West Coast, the Stanley Cup has never been closer to going Hollywood.
Los Angeles is two wins away from claiming the franchise’s first title and burying 4½ decades of monotonous ineptitude interrupted only by short stretches of brilliance from Wayne Gretzky, Marcel Dionne and a few other stars who wore the club’s ever-changing uniforms — including another switch to that eye-catching “LA” logo before this season.
Hockey has always had a steadfast fan base out here among the movie stars and palm trees, but those fans are conditioned to accept small victories as fuel for their faith. These Kings have abruptly erased this club’s tedious reputation with a 14-2 playoff run that has few equals in NHL history.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been on a team like this where everybody is locked in,” said Jeff Carter, whose persistence on the puck led to the overtime goal that won Game 2. “Everybody knows what they need to do to go out on the ice and get it done.”
It’s impossible to measure how many casual Los Angeles fans have resumed their interest in hockey, digging into their closets for the purple-and-gold Kings hat or that old No. 99 jersey before jumping on a bandwagon that’s sagging under the weight of witnesses to this team’s brilliance. Kings gear can be spotted everywhere from Santa Monica to downtown, from Dodger Stadium to even Angel Stadium, which sits across a freeway from the archrival Anaheim Ducks’ home rink.
Yet the Kings are acutely aware their final job is only half done. Coach Darryl Sutter, the unlikely architect of this playoff push, spoke with his players on the cross-continental flight home from Newark about the importance of improving even now, about realizing their two-month effort isn’t over.
And for all of Los Angeles’ astonishing success in this charmed postseason surge, the New Jersey Devils have ample reason to believe their own Stanley Cup dreams aren’t dead.
No playoff opponent has tested the Kings as thoroughly as the Devils, who would have needed only a stray deflection or a shot under the crossbar to reverse this series’ results. New Jersey has limited the Kings’ shots, tested star goalie Jonathan Quick and twice forced extra time by holding Los Angeles to just one regulation goal in each game.
Even the Kings realize those results probably would be enough to win most series. It hasn’t been enough in this series, but it’s far from finished.
“Jersey has been really successful on the forecheck against us,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown, who went scoreless in New Jersey and hasn’t scored a goal since the opener of the Western Conference finals. “They’ve been more successful than any team against us. We’re probably spending more time in our defensive zone against them than any other team. They’re really making it tough on us.”
New Jersey outplayed Los Angeles for long stretches of its 2-1 overtime loss in Game 2, but the Devils were denied by Quick’s goaltending and that crossbar, which got in the way of Ilya Kovalchuk’s open shot with about 18 seconds left in regulation after Brown’s atrocious giveaway nearly handed the game to New Jersey.
The Devils also can draw solace from the fact that an 0-2 comeback in the finals was accomplished just last year by the Boston Bruins, who won four of the final five games to take the Stanley Cup from the Vancouver Canucks.
But the Kings have shown no serious signs that this 7½-week run of spectacular postseason play is about to end. Look at it this way: The Kings haven’t even fallen behind in eight of their last 10 games, trailing only in the final two games of the Western Conference finals against Phoenix.
The last four games of Los Angeles’ postseason have been its toughest stretch, with a shutout loss to the Coyotes followed by three straight overtime victories. But the Kings always seem to find the right matchup, make the right change and get the lucky break that puts them through to the next stage, outscoring their opponents 45-24 along the way.
This is just not normal to the long-suffering fans of the Kings, who still remember how their only other appearance in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals went wrong when Marty McSorley was penalized for an illegal stick in 1993. The Kings lost that game and the next four to Montreal, and they haven’t been back to the finals since.
In fact, they had won one playoff series in the past 17 seasons before this charmed summer when everything changed.
Even with two wins still to go, the Kings realize they’ve made history.
“It’s been a long time for these guys,” said Carter, who arrived in February in a trade that reunited him with Richards, his friend and longtime Flyers teammate. “I think it would mean the world to this franchise. They’ve done a great job of sticking to the plan here and building this organization, and this would be the reward.”