On the morning after, instead of nursing Stanley Cup hangovers, the Los Angeles Kings were feeling only regret – with perhaps a frisson of worry thrown in for good measure.
The Kings were poised to win the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 45 years Wednesday, at home, and the town was ready to party. Instead, they lost a 3-1 nail-biter to the New Jersey Devils and are forced to take their award-winning show on the road again.
Kings players say it really doesn’t matter to them where they play, even if they are a perfect 10-0 away from the Staples Center this spring (an NHL record).
Either that impressive run continues Saturd ay, which would make L.A. the fourth Stanley Cup champion in a row to win the trophy on the road, or the law of averages catches up to it and, suddenly, what looked like a rout becomes a series.
The psychology of the closing game can be fascinating, both internally and externally, and a topic Kings winger Justin Williams was willing to explore.
Throughout an extraordinary 15-3 run through the 2012 playoffs, the only time the Kings have let opportunity slip through their fingers has been in elimination games. Both the Vancouver Canucks, in Round 1, and the Phoenix Coyotes, in Round 3, managed to stay alive for one more day, before the Kings eventually closed the best-of-seven series in five games.
“Elimination games, I don’t know, the teams you play against are there for a reason,” Williams said. “It’s not supposed to be a sweep all the time. You’re not supposed to win every game.
“That’s when their character comes out, when their backs are against the wall. They played a great game [Wednesday], battled hard. We just didn’t quite have enough.”
Elimination games are hardest to win when the Stanley Cup is in the building, and when the goal of winning a championship is no longer a distant speck on the horizon but right there, in front of them, in the steel-side packing case, shipped into the building directly from the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, television commercial star Phil Pritchard in the house.
With two days off ahead of Saturday’s Game 5 in Newark, the Kings have plenty of time to, as defenceman Drew Doughty likes to say, reset and refocus on the task at hand. The pressure of winning at home, in front of family, friends and long-suffering fans, has now been lifted.
Typically, the most grounded man in the room was Kings head coach Darryl Sutter, who figured his team played better in the Game 4 loss than it did in the Game 2 victory. Sutter also wondered how expectations had been permitted to gallop away to unexpected heights.
The coach said the strategy in New Jersey would not be complicated and the Kings would “continue to play the way we’re playing. That’s why you play series. Unfortunately, we have some spoiled people that think that everyone wins 16 in a row or something. A little confusing to me.”
After Wednesday’s game, Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur was his usual unflappable self. The Devils have previously rallied from a 3-1 best-of-seven-series deficit in Brodeur’s career, but he wasn’t about to predict anything more than they have now given the Kings something to think about.
“We pulled it off, one game,” he said, “But I’m sure they’re not happy to make that trip [the Kings hopped a jet for Newark on Thursday morning]. We’ll try to make it miserable for them again.”
It didn’t sound like Williams was at all miserable, just excited, for another chance to win the Stanley Cup. He won his lone NHL championship with the Carolina Hurricanes in a tense seven-game final against the Edmonton Oilers.
The Kings still have some wiggle room, up 3-1 in the series, before the pressure really ramps up.
“We know the Prudential Center’s going to be rocking,” Williams said, “just like when we had to go back to Phoenix and play Game 5, or back to Vancouver and play Game 5.
“The arena’s are going to be rocking – and we’ll have to be ready for them.”