They have, at various times, been compared to cockroaches, zombies and Rasputin – the common thread that all are nearly impossible to kill off. And so it has been with the Los Angeles Kings, in these playoffs and in this Stanley Cup final against the New York Rangers, in which they have led for exactly zero minutes and zero seconds in the first two games, and yet are ahead in the series 2-0, thanks to a pair of come-from-behind overtime wins.
Moreover, the Kings have been going completely against script in this postseason. Once the definition of a defensively responsible team, they are now this loosey-goosey collective that routinely falls behind by a pair of goals and then starts the excavation project.
It is, in almost all respects, the opposite of the formula they used two years ago, when they cruised to the Stanley Cup championship, going 16-4 overall in the postseason, and getting out to insurmountable 3-0 leads in every single series.
This time around, with a better team on paper, they are making it look hard. In the first two games of the Rangers’ series, they have been behind cumulatively for over 50 minutes, but are ahead when it matters most – at the end of the game.
Identity-wise, the Kings see themselves as a 1-0 team and had hoped to turn the Stanley Cup final into a series of narrow, low-scoring victories by relentlessly wearing down the opposition with hard, heavy defensive hockey. Their spiritual mentor is Roger Neilson, and during the regular season, they gave up the fewest goals in the league.
Saturday’s free-for-all, which ended as a 5-4 double overtime victory, was the Kings’ 23rd game of the 2014 playoffs. In eight games (and in four of the past five), goaltender Jonathan Quick has uncharacteristically surrendered four goals or more.
Quick has been turning the games into the sort of last-shot-wins ethos associated with the NHL of the 1980s and the Edmonton Oilers. Of course, it was always said of Oilers goaltender Grant Fuhr that he might give up an iffy goal early, but rarely when it mattered, with the game on the line. In these playoffs, despite mediocre stats, Quick has been at his best in those moments when he couldn’t allow one more goal – 48-plus minutes of shutout hockey in the opener, no goals in the third or overtime periods of Saturday’s game either.
Some Kings players are taking perverse and mischievous pleasure in their characterization as the undead. Alec Martinez, who scored the overtime game winner to eliminate the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference final, even used the word “cockroach” to describe their will to stay alive in his post-game interview on national U.S. television.
But centre Jarret Stoll, whose faceoff wins and aggressive physical play were key elements in Saturday’s win, acknowledged that going down this path night after night is fraught with peril.
“Are we playing good or are we not?” asked Stoll rhetorically.
“Right now we’re doing a lot of things that aren’t in our game, and haven’t been in our game for years here. We’re getting away with it I think right now.”
Stoll hastened to add: “Don’t get me wrong, we did a lot of good things to come back. Down 2-0, down 4-2. Resiliency to come back and battle and push and pull everybody into it, battle for that tying goal and the winning goal again. It’s just how we’re playing. We’ve got to be honest with how we’re playing. We know we’ve got more.”
Indeed, the Kings have overcome four two-goal deficits in the series already. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the Kings also are the first team in Stanley Cup playoff history to overcome a two-goal deficit to win three consecutive games.
What seemingly sets the Kings apart, according to team captain Dustin Brown, is a chemistry that has evolved over the past half-dozen years. Most of the core pieces have been in place for years, creating trust among the long-term teammates. Occasionally, the Kings tweak the roster at the trading deadline and this year’s key addition, Marian Gaborik, has been a smooth, seamless important fit.
But every night, it seems there is a different scoring hero, the latest of them being Brown, who had a dreadful scoring season and spent a good part of the second half playing as a bottom-six forward. More recently, coach Darryl Sutter swapped out Brown for Justin Williams on the top line alongside Gaborik and Anze Kopitar last round, and they’ve been good together. Williams, at even strength playing mostly on Stoll’s line, has had a remarkable playoff – three more assists Saturday – but Brown has been starting to chip in offensively now, a sure sign that things are on the right track.
According to Brown, “satisfy” is not the right word to describe how the Kings have played lately. In all, they have not held the lead in their past 229:15 of playing time, a span covering four games (and unbelievably dating back to the 11:34 mark of the third period of Game 6 versus Chicago). Most teams, with that kind of record, would be long gone.
“The mentality of our team is very black and white,” Brown said. “Our mentality allows us to stay in games and to kind of turn the tide over the course of the game, and allow us to come back. We have to get back to doing it at the start of games.”
Otherwise, you’d have to think the Kings could really be in trouble.