Nineteen years ago, or the only other time they were close to winning a Stanley Cup, the Los Angeles Kings were undone by a legendary penalty - to Marty McSorley, for using an illegal stick.
Karma, perhaps, then that on the night the Kings won their first Stanley Cup in 45 years, it was largely thanks to a major boarding penalty assessed against New Jersey Devils’ fourth-line winger Steve Bernier midway through the first period of Monday night’s deciding game.
The Kings had scored only six power-play goals in the entire first three rounds of the playoffs, but they capitalized three times during Bernier’s five-minute major and coasted to a 6-1 victory to win the best-of-seven series four games to two.
It was an anti-climatic ending to a series that was just starting to get interesting, New Jersey having won two in a row to put the first real pressure on the Kings in what finished as an extraordinary 16-4 run for them through the playoffs.
Team captain Dustin Brown, who’d had a quiet Stanley Cup final up until Monday night, scored the first goal; made the play on the second; and was the driving inspirational force behind the final victory. The native of Ithaca, N.Y., became only the second American-born captain of a Stanley Cup championship team, after Derian Hatcher with the 1999 Dallas Stars.
Brown’s irritating physical play made him the pivotal force in the Kings’ upset over Vancouver. From there, the Kings took out the St. Louis Blues (in four games), the Phoenix Coyotes (in five) and the Devils (in six).
“Brownie’s the leader, he’s the captain and you can’t ask for much more than he brought tonight,” said centre Anze Kopitar.
Afterward, Brown took the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman, skated with it for a few seconds and then turned back and handed it to defenceman Willie Mitchell who, at 35, was the oldest player on the Kings. From there, it went to Simon Gagne, Anze Kopitar, Matt Greene, Jarret Stoll, Justin Williams, Mike Richards and through the rest of the team.
Mitchell, who’d signed with the Kings as a free agent from the Canucks, was a picture of pure, unadulterated joy on the ice, afterward. As he took his skate with the Cup, Mitchell said his thoughts were “for his family and his friends and how they supported me on this journey.
“To be honest,” said Mitchell, “I was looking up for them and showing it because I knew where they were sitting, and then I forgot to kiss the thing. We’ve got to get that thing back here somehow - because everyone else is kissing it and I forgot.”
Mitchell went on to say: “Reflection is for after, I think,” but then talked about playing road hockey as a child.
“Or we’d be on the ice sheet, and you’d play and get a little green garbage can and pose with it (like it was the Stanley Cup). We just did it for real baby. It was so awesome, so cool.”
The turning point in the game came when Bernier hit Kings’ defenceman Rob Scuderi from behind, knocking him, face-first, into the boards. Scuderi left the game, bleeding from the nose and lip, but the Kings made the Devils pay, on consecutive goals scored by Brown, Jeff Carter and Trevor Lewis, all with the man advantage. Carter then made it 4-0 for L.A. early in the second period and at that point, it was all over but the crying from the New Jersey side about a couple of missed calls against the Kings just before Bernier was banished - along with their Stanley Cup hopes and dreams. Lewis, with his second, and Matt Greene, rounded out the scoring for the Kings.
Adam Henrique had the lone goal for the Devils.
Devils coach Peter DeBoer was upset with the call on Bernier, but post-game, was all class.
“You know what, tonight is about L.A. and letting them celebrate,” said DeBoer. “If you want to ask me about that in about a week, I'll give you my honest opinion on it."
The eighth-seeded Kings caught lightning in a bottle in these playoffs, but even they could not definitively say if it was health, goaltending, the coaching change, the trades or the timely scoring contributions from up and down the line-up (17 different players scored at least one goal in these playoffs) that represented the single biggest factor in their unprecedented success story.
Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff MVP, but this was also a coming-out party of sorts for defenceman Drew Doughty, who’d struggled in the first half of the season, following a contract holdout, but played brilliantly in the playoffs and added a Stanley Cup to the gold medal he won for Canada in the 2010 Olympics.
Traditionally, the NHL playoffs are thought of as a marathon, because the path to the Stanley Cup is so grueling and there is often collateral, injury damage along the way. But for Los Angeles, this was an unexpected sprint to the finish - and remarkably good health along the way contributed to their surge.
Things started to turn around when the Kings hired Darryl Sutter to replace Terry Murray as the team’s coach in mid-December.
Sutter became the third member of his legendary hockey family to get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, but the first in 28 years, or since brothers Duane and Brent won with the 1984 New York Islanders.
The Kings’ first owner was a Canadian, Jack Kent Cooke, and their previous best moments mostly came during a eight-year span between 1988 and 1996, when Wayne Gretzky - the NHL’s all-time scoring leader - was the face and pulse of the franchise. McSorley’s penalty, during their loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the 1993 Stanley Cup final, defined the Kings for a generation.
Consider last night’s victory the exorcism.