NEW YORK – Two years to the day after the Los Angeles Kings last won the Stanley Cup, the most beautiful trophy in the world will be in Madison Square Garden. Phil Pritchard and Craig Campbell from the Hockey Hall of Fame, the keepers of the Cup, will have their white gloves at the ready. The Los Angeles Kings will step on the ice knowing they’re 60 (or perhaps more) minutes away from winning their second Stanley Cup in three years, which is about as close as you can get to a dynasty these days.
The last time the Kings were in the position to sweep the final series and win the Stanley Cup, they spit the bit. They will not do the same in 2014. That does not necessarily mean they will win Game 4 Wednesday night, but it does mean that if the New York Rangers are going to get their first victory of this series, they’re going to have to earn it.
The Rangers are a proud bunch of players. They wouldn’t have advanced this far if they weren’t. They wouldn’t have made it out of the second round of the playoffs when they went down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins if they didn’t have a chip on their shoulders. But now none of the talk among the Rangers is not about miraculously coming back and winning this series, but rather going down swinging. Defenseman Marc Staal talked about not wanting to see the Stanley Cup awarded to the visiting team. “It’s not going to happen that way,” Staal said. And this from Dan Girardi: “We definitely don’t want to get swept in the Stanley Cup final and we don’t want to lose in front of our home fans either. That’s not the way we want to go out.”
Do those sound like the words of players who think they have a chance to come back in the series? It would almost be enough to make the Kings an overconfident group, that is if they didn’t have the composure and experience that comes with playing 62 playoff games in three seasons.
When the Kings faced the prospect of winning Game 4 on home ice two years ago, there was almost a giddy feeling among players and fans. The lead up to Game 4 was more akin to a coronation. The LA Live area surrounding the Staples Center had the feel of a victory party hours before the game. The Kings allowed themselves to look too far ahead and they took two more games to get the job done.
“There was a lot of distraction,” said Kings coach Darryl Sutter. “I think that was a lesson learned not just for our players, but for our whole organization. We were trying to keep our players as a little inner circle, which they still do. But the circle got a little bit of infringement.”
Playing on the road to try to win this Cup will likely help the Kings focus on the task at hand a little better. Many of the wives and families are in New York – including sportscaster Erin Andrews, who is dating Kings center Jarret Stoll – are here in the event the Kings manage to close out the series. But when they’re on the road, the players are able to isolate themselves from family demands much easier than when they’re at home.
“There were some issues that maybe got us sidetracked a little bit,” Kings winger Justin Williams said of 2012. “The thought of winning a Cup, being one game away, family issues, ticket issues, all that stuff. That can maybe sidetrack you from the end result. We’ve got the rest of our lives to see our friends and family, make sure they have tickets and all that. We have, you know, usually one chance, and this is our second chance to do it, to win a Stanley Cup, to be remembered forever.”
This is a much different Kings team than the one that won in 2012. As coach Darryl Sutter pointed out, there are a number of key players such as Tyler Toffoli, Tanner Pearson, Jake Muzzin, Marian Gaborik and Kyle Clifford, who were not part of that team. But the core of the Kings has remained intact and two years after they started the quest for their first Stanley Cup, the Kings have become a playoff juggernaut.
“Guys have gotten older, better,” said Conn Smythe Trophy candidate Drew Doughty. “We’ve added pieces to the puzzle. When all that happens, your team becomes a better team. We live for the playoffs. We live for these types of moments. Yeah, this team, we’re a great team, but we’re not finished what we have to do yet.”