EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Jonathan Quick remembers eating ice pops with his friends and watching their beloved New York Rangers win the Stanley Cup on television in 1994. Dustin Brown vaguely recalls Joe Nieuwendyk bringing the Cup to Ithaca, N.Y., but can’t remember if he got to see it up close.
With just one more win by their Los Angeles Kings, the star goalie and the courageous captain will have the Stanley Cup in their hands, above their head — even in the Pacific Ocean, if they choose.
The stage is set for a California coronation in Game 4 on Wednesday night. The Kings could complete a sweep of the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup finals in front of a sellout crowd that’s been waiting 45 years for this chance to celebrate.
“It’s right there in front of us, but we know there’s one more step,” Brown said Tuesday at the Kings’ training complex. “We don’t want to trip now.”
The eighth-seeded Kings are dominating the NHL playoffs with an ease that’s stranger than ice in sunny L.A. A franchise that has never done much of anything in the postseason has already conquered the Western Conference, and the Kings are one win away from claiming their first championship in almost impossibly stylish fashion.
The Kings are on a 15-2 playoff run that has only one equal in NHL history, leaving everyone searching for superlatives to describe the way Los Angeles has steamrolled every opponent in its path by a combined 49-24 margin.
Game 4 is even a chance for Los Angeles to be the first NHL team to win the Cup at home since Anaheim in 2007, rewarding the fans who consistently sold out Staples Center even during the Kings’ ignominious playoff absence from 2002-10 before general manager Dean Lombardi’s rebuilding plan yielded bountiful fruit this spring.
“There’s a lot at the end there to look forward to, if we play the right way,” Jarret Stoll said. “I’m sure we’ll talk a lot about it the next day and a half to get ready, making sure we’re playing the right way, having the right attitude. Can’t get too excited, look too far ahead. You have to stay in the moment and play the game.”
The Kings appear to be neither overly excited nor overly defensive about the potential conclusion to this two-month playoff push. Los Angeles has been remarkably unaffected by any of its success after a rough regular season in which a playoff berth wasn’t secure until just before the 81st game.
They have a chance to match Edmonton’s NHL-record 16-2 run through the 1988 playoffs in Game 4, but the Kings aren’t getting too high.
“It doesn’t count any more than the rest of them did,” insisted Quick, who has allowed just 24 goals in 17 playoff games. “Obviously, we’re not going to start thinking about stuff that hasn’t happened yet.”
The Kings started this run with two road victories over top-seeded Vancouver nearly two months ago, and they haven’t slowed down. Los Angeles eliminated the top three seeds in the West and eventually took a 3-0 lead in all four of its playoff series — both unprecedented accomplishments in NHL history.
Los Angeles is led by Brown, leading playoff scorer Anze Kopitar and Quick, the All-Star goalie and Conn Smythe Trophy favorite who has a .950 save percentage behind a shot-blocking defense that has allowed just five power-play goals in 69 chances. The Kings have won four straight games and 12 of their last 13, never even trailing at any point in nine of their last 11 games — including the entire Cup finals so far.
The Devils have played the Kings tougher than any previous postseason opponent over a three-game stretch, but it hasn’t been enough.
“I don’t think we believe we deserve to be in the hole we’re in,” Devils coach Peter DeBoer said. “I think we played better than the situation indicates, but that’s hockey. We have to persevere here, and stick with it and find a solution.”
Los Angeles needed overtime goals to win the first two games in New Jersey, and the Devils had a golden opportunity to take their first lead of the finals during six power plays over the first two periods of Game 3, a disparity that even inspired Kings coach Darryl Sutter to do a bit of halfhearted sniping about the officiating.
But New Jersey couldn’t convert on its chances in Game 3, and now the Devils are in an 0-3 hole that’s only been escaped three times in NHL playoff history — and just once in 25 tries in the Stanley Cup finals, by Toronto in 1942.
“It’s hard for the team that’s behind to wrap (its minds) around it and say it’s possible,” said Martin Brodeur, a three-time champion. “The team that’s ahead knows it just has to work hard for little longer, and that’s it.”
Stoll and Kings defenseman Matt Greene learned all about the importance of perseverance to the last minute of the NHL postseason in 2006, when their eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers fell one game short of winning the Cup against Justin Williams’ Carolina Hurricanes.
“You work so hard for your teammates,” said Stoll, who scored the series-clinching overtime goal in the first round against President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver. “At the end of every playoff win, it’s such a gratifying feeling to sit in your stall. You’re exhausted. You lost 8 to 10 pounds, whatever the case may be. You have that win under your belt, looking forward to the next game. … You want to take advantage of it, because you never know when you’re going to get back to this stage.”
When the Kings go looking for weaknesses to inspire their effort, they’re struggling — but at least they can point to Game 4, their only sore spot in the entire postseason so far. They failed to eliminate Vancouver and Phoenix on their first chance, forcing them to make a second trip to both cities — where they padded their historic 10-0 road playoff record with Game 5 victories.
“We haven’t been very good in these situations,” Kings center Mike Richards said. “We’re 1-2 when we’re up in this situation. It’s something we have to improve on, obviously. We still know that we can play better and be better. We’re going to have to be, because they’re going to bring it all.”