In 2006, playing for the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers, Jarret Stoll unexpectedly made his way to the Stanley Cup final for the first time in his NHL career.
The Oilers caught a wave in that year’s NHL playoffs and rode it right until the bitter end – bitter being a precise modifier in this case. The Oilers went the distance against the Carolina Hurricanes, dominating Game 6 in the best-of-seven series, and were poised to win it all. Instead, they came up flat in the final game, lost, and now, six years later, Stoll has a second chance.
The native of Melville, Sask., plans to make the most of it.
“It doesn’t matter how long it takes to get back, as long as you get back there – and some guys never get there, so you can’t take it for granted,” Stoll cautioned after his Los Angeles Kings eliminated the Phoenix Coyotes in five games to set up a Stanley Cup final meeting with either the New York Rangers or New Jersey Devils. “You have to be fortunate and have the right attitude and lay it all out there.
“We’re there now. We’ve got to regroup, refocus, get some good practices in, and get ready for the next round.”
After a day off Wednesday, and an optional practice Thursday, the Kings will slowly start to gear up for the final round, which they will enter healthy and well-rested on an unimaginably efficient 12-2 run.
Just as the Oilers received exceptional minutes from defenceman Chris Pronger six years ago, the Kings are getting yeoman’s work from Drew Doughty, who has the knack of playing his best when the games matter most.
After the Kings dispatched St. Louis in the second round, Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock cast his series MVP vote with Doughty, which pretty much made it unanimous. Centre Anze Kopitar was the main man in the Phoenix series with his exceptional play on both sides of the puck. Plus, Dustin Brown was easily L.A.’s most-effective player in the opening round against the Vancouver Canucks … so you can see why the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation, as it relates to the Kings, is wide open.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick is a contender, too, just as Dwayne Roloson was for Edmonton in 2006, before he was injured in the opening game of the final.
That’s what makes Stoll’s experience so valuable. He understands that, as well as things have gone for three rounds now, things can change in a hurry.
An injury here, a flat outing there, and all of a sudden, six weeks of exceptional work – and a record-setting eight-game road undefeated streak – can go up in smoke.
The Kings can roughly be divided into three camps when it comes to playoff experience.
There are four players who’ve won the Stanley Cup: Colin Fraser (2010), Rob Scuderi (2009), Dustin Penner (2007) and Justin Williams (2006). There are those who’ve made the long journey through the playoffs, only to come up short: Stoll, former Oilers teammate Matt Greene and the ex-Philadelphia Flyers connection, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. The third group consists of those experiencing a deep playoff run for the first time: Kopitar, Brown, Quick and the rest.
Stoll is playing the part previously assigned to Mike Peca in the Oilers’ run. He is centring the third line (with Dwight King and Trevor Lewis). King had a brief offensive spurt in the Phoenix series, conjuring up memories of Fernando Pisani’s unexpected scoring heroics for the Oilers.
So mostly what Stoll and the rest of the veterans can do is provide a calming influence, a sense that while they’ve had a good run, somebody will lose the Stanley Cup final in the next fortnight as well.
At that point, instead of having your name engraved on the Cup in perpetuity, you just become a footnote in the record books and exit the postseason with that unsettling feeling of unfinished business.
Even teams such as the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins, which made consecutive deep forays into the playoffs, will tell you the grind of one year can wear on you the next. So as good as the Kings have been, they also understand next year, the Vancouver Canucks will be recharged; Detroit will be reloading; the Nashville Predators will have something to prove; and the Chicago Blackhawks may all be back on the same page again.
So even if the foundation is strong and the key members of the team are entering their prime years, there are no guarantees in a 30-team league blessed and/or cursed by parity.
Stoll gets that; and so do the others, and over the next week or so, they’ll ponder what they’ve done, but also the challenge that lies ahead.
In Stoll’s case, – and Greene’s, and Richards’s and Carter’s, too – they know he knows the opportunity to play for championship only comes along every so often. Better to make the most of it while you can.