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Los Angeles Kings right wing Dustin Brown is presented with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at United Center. (USA TODAY Sports)

Los Angeles Kings right wing Dustin Brown is presented with the Clarence S. Campbell Bowl by NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Final of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs at United Center.

(USA TODAY Sports)

Kings advance to Stanley Cup final with Game 7 win over Blackhawks Add to ...

Even when things looked darkest for the Los Angeles Kings – and there is no greater hole in the NHL playoffs than a 3-0 series deficit – coach Darryl Sutter thought his team had a chance. Sutter confided in his boss, general manager Dean Lombardi, that if the Kings could just get a foothold in their opening-round series against the San Jose Sharks, there was a way to wriggle out of a historical deficit.

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Sure enough, the Kings became just the fourth team in NHL history to win a series after dropping the first three games – and that continued resilience was on display again Sunday night when they eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in the seventh and deciding game of a memorable Western Conference final.

It was a spectacularly entertaining series, a throwback to an earlier era, before goaltenders became such dominant factors in the game.

Alec Martinez won it for L.A. in the end, his overtime goal giving them a 5-4 victory and turning the tables on the Blackhawks who eliminated the Kings in the third round last year. On the play, Justin Williams sent a pass back to the point to Martinez, who put a wrister towards the goal that deflected in off defenceman Nick Leddy past a helpless goaltender Corey Crawford.

You name it, this series had it. The stars were out in force on both sides. It was hard, it was clean and it was respectful - proof that mindless idiocy has no place in the game, when it is played at a high level by two experienced teams focusing on the play between the whistles.

“That was an amazing series, it really was,” said Kings’ defenceman Drew Doughty. “It’s even better that we won it, obviously, but that was just a hard fought battle out there. Both teams played pretty honest, there wasn’t any diving, there wasn’t guys cheating, It was just an honest series, battles in the corners, a lot of goals. There was everything in this series. It was a lot of fun. I hope the next series can feel the same way.”

“I thought both teams left it out there,” added Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville. “Unfortunately, somebody had to lose.

“We were pretty close to getting back to the big dance. We were close. If you look at how close and how competitive it was, it’s a tough league. It’s a tough thing to do, to win the Cup. I couldn’t be prouder of our guys, the way we competed, and we were one shot away from trying to do it again.

“Fighting to overcome all those obstacles after what happened last year and this year … I’ve lost some tough games, but nothing like tonight.”

The Kings will open the final at home Wednesday against the Rangers, and will be trying to win their second Stanley Cup championship in the past three years. The teams split their two regular-season meetings, with New York winning on the road in the first week of the season and the Kings earning a 1-0 shutout victory behind their former back-up goaltender, Ben Scrivens, at Madison Square Garden.

They haven’t met since Nov. 17, meaning a lot of things have changed on both sides. But one thing that remains consistent is how Williams raises the level of his play in elimination games. A 43-point regular season scorer, who mostly plays on the Kings’ third line, Williams scored once and set up the winner, meaning he has 14 career points in Game 7s, the most in NHL history. Williams’ assist on Martinez broke a record that he shared with Doug Gilmour.

“I love June hockey,” said Williams, a two-time Stanley Cup champion, with both the Carolina Hurricanes and the Kings two years ago. “June hockey is best. It's warm out. I mentioned it to Brownie (captain Dustin Brown) on the way in. I said, 'I love playing in this nice weather. We're almost the only show in town and that makes it special.'

“June hockey is good memories … most of the time."

The Kings became the first team in NHL history to win three consecutive seven-game series on the road to qualify for the Stanley Cup final - and they did it the hard way.

On Sunday night, they fell behind three times in the first two periods – by scores of 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 – and still came away with the victory, following their stirring third-period rally.

Marian Gaborik, the trade-deadline acquisition that just keeps paying dividends for the Kings, scored the pivotal third-period tying goal, with under eight minutes to go in regulation. On the play, Brown crossed the Blackhawks line on an innocent-looking play, firing a long wrist shot to the goal. Gaborik, driving to the net, arrived first to gather in the rebound and fire it past goaltender Corey Crawford.

Brown, who’d had a difficult time scoring in the regular season and played a lot on the third line in the second half of the season, had a strong series against the Blackhawks, leading the physical charge and making simple plays at the end that frequently paid off in goals.

“Last year they smacked us around,” said Brown. “I think we were a better team this year and evenly matched. I don’t think it was revenge. It’s weird in the sense that we played them back to back years but I think the respect on each side is very high.

“I think tonight was just different. This was probably the most emotional seven games I’ve ever played because of how games were won and lost and series leads back and forth.”

Fittingly for a series that was so close all the way through, it marked the first time in 20 years – or since the Rangers defeated the New Jersey Devils in the 1994 playoff semi-final – in which a conference final was decided in overtime.

After his team fell behind early, Sutter juggled all of his lines and the new units helped spark the first couple of necessary comebacks.

Kings’ goaltender Jonathan Quick improved to 7-0 in elimination games this year, but after starring in most of the other six, he had a rough outing, surrendering four goals in the first 40 minutes.

Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews scored first-period goals for the Blackhawks and the red-hot Patrick Kane earned assists on both, giving him nine points over a three-game span after starting the series with just a single point in four games. Toews’ power-play goal came when Brent Seabrook’s shot deflected off Kane’s butt, right onto the captain’s stick.

On Patrick Sharp’s first of two goals, Quick gave up a goal on a shot from the right face-off circle that hopped, then skipped, and then jumped over his right pad into the net. It was that sort of a night, full of crazy bounces. But Quick settled down after the second period and kept the Kings in it, when one more might have put the game out of reach.

Does that make the Kings a team of destiny?

Perhaps – although their stamina will be tested by a New York team that will have enjoyed a six-day break since eliminating the Montreal Canadiens last Thursday.

“It’s kind of hard to put everything into words right now,” said Kings’ centre Anze Kopitar, the playoff scoring leader. “Deep down we definitely felt we could do this. Coming from behind the whole game, being in a loud rink, Chicago’s playing good - to get it done really shows the character we have in this room and that really is priceless.

“I don’t know what to say anymore. We kept battling. It was not easy out there. We had to kill a five-on-three, a bunch of five-on-fours, kudos to everybody in here.”

Follow on Twitter: @eduhatschek

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