LOS ANGELES -- The Stanley Cup playoffs are supposed to be a marathon, but for the Los Angeles Kings, the spring of 2012 had pretty much been a 10K fun run where the organizers pass out sponsored T-shirts. The Kings had just loped along past the water stations known as the Vancouver Canucks, St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes and then put on a finishing kick that looked like it was going to sweep them past the New Jersey Devils and through the tape, ending the most soporific Cup final since the franchise entered the NHL 45 years ago.
Now they have to fly to Newark.
There are worse fates, of course, than chartering across the country. Greyhound, for example. Or Snooki might offer to drive you. But this 2,500-mile trip all seemed so unnecessary. When the Cup is in the building, along with friends and family and Will Ferrell, you sort of want to avoid having to wait for another few days for the probable coronation of these Kings.
"We made them get on a plane and come to New Jersey," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur observed. "We had to go anyway."
The final that curiously still remains almost devoid of passion at least gained a dollop of longevity, courtesy of the Devils' 3-1 win in Game 4. For a hockey-record crowd of 18,867 at the Staples Center, you could sum up the evening in one word: refund. For the Devils, you can sum up the evening with one name: Henrique.
Adam Henrique does not look like a rookie anymore. Actually Henrique didn't look like Henrique much anymore, at least not the familiar Henrique of the later playoff rounds. In an effort to alter his luck of late, the 22-year-old shaved his goatee after Game 3 in favor of the sort of mustache that can often be espied on the cable channels that parents generally block at hotels.
Anyway Henrique, who gets to play hooky as long as he plays hockey -- he is due back to help on the family tobacco farm in Ontario -- made a play that truly was exceptional, the first glimmer of brilliance by a Devils forward in the series. Considering the situation -- the tie score, the minutes in the third period melting away, the Devils' 3-0 predicament and the deteriorating conditions of the ice -- Henrique's sleight of hand, and nimble feet, conjured as brilliant a goal as Anze Kopitar's overtime breakaway in Game 1 and the full Bobby Orr that Los Angeles defenseman Drew Doughty scored in Game 2.
David Clarkson was coming up the right wing into the offensive zone when he flung a pass on a 30-degree angle to Henrique, his center, who had found open ice down the right side. The pass might have traveled 35 feet through a seam into Henrique's skates. Channeling his inner Beckham, Henrique kicked the puck directly onto his tape, then rifled a shot past Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, who had to be wary of a Clarkson shot and could not cheat to his right.
"It came off the ice (foot to the stick) pretty nice," Henrique said. "I knew (Quick) would have to come a long way to make the save short-side."
Devils center Travis Zajac called Henrique "clutch," a topic that deserves more of a philosophical discussion than a recitation of this fact: of Henrique's four playoff goals, one was the Game 7 double-overtime series winner against the Panthers, one was the series-winning overtime goal in the Conference final against the Rangers and one was the goal that grabbed the Devils by their back of their white jerseys and pulled them back from the ledge.
"We know he has some skill," said Alexei Ponikarovsky, who had the secondary assist on Henrique's game-winner with 4:31 remaining. "The ice is not real great at that time of the game, and picking up the puck and making the play is special."
"The feeling when the puck went in was better than any feeling I've had in my career so far," Clarkson said. "When I was sitting in the penalty box and they scored, I had a sore stomach. Henrique making that play ... got me out of the doghouse."
As you will see, a freshly shaved fellow like Clarkson, who had been getting no karma from his whiskers, could go from goat -- or Schnauzer -- to hero in a flash.
For two periods, the Kings and Devils played old-time hockey ... if by old-time, we are talking about, say, last November on some placid weeknight in Columbus. Given the discreet nature of the play, you had to wonder if the Cup stories in your local newspaper this morning would be running not in the sports section but in what used to be called the society pages, right next to the Miss Manners column. This was way too polite. There were spasms of excitement -- in the second period Brodeur made a night nifty kick save on a breaking Simon Gagné with New Jersey defenseman Andy Greene backchecking furiously -- but there was a surfeit of circumspection. This, as you probably know, is not a compliment in a playoff game.
Then in the third period, perhaps the thought of the 35-pound trophy finally made the men play with the zeal of little boys. Patrik Elias broke the scoreless tie almost eight minutes into the period with a goal that could hardly be called typical -- after all, it was only New Jersey's third of the final -- but certainly seemed representative. The Devils had been able to beat Quick with some help, and this proved no different. The initial shot glanced off Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell, then Quick himself, before it crossed the goal line. The other Devils goals had taken circuitous routes -- the bounce off Kings defenseman Slava Voynov in Game 1, Devils fourth-liner Ryan Carter's redirection in Game 2 -- but there was at least something to build on from Elias's fifth playoff goal, which gave New Jersey its first lead in the series.
Then Clarkson tore it down within a minute by taking a boarding penalty against Kings captain Dustin Brown, a call that struck the Devils winger as unjust. Kopitar won the ensuing faceoff back to Mike Richards, who fed Doughty at the left point. With Brown screening, Doughty beat Brodeur cleanly four seconds after the penalty and exactly a minute after the Elias goal.
"I don't think Clarkson deserved a penalty on that one," Brodeur said. "That is part of being in the opposing building sometimes when you score a big goal in the third. But we bounced back really well. I thought we were really calm, for whatever reason. Sometimes you could get a little nervous. Again, it's a tough environment when you're going to win the Stanley Cup. We try to stay with it as much as we can. They sat back a little bit. They still did have a couple chances, but I thought we were really calm with the puck, and it showed. I think it's the first time we got in the zone and made a pass all series instead of dumping it in and it ended up being a goal."
For Henrique, who once scored a semifinal overtime winner in the Memorial Cup, it was simply more business as usual, an opportunity rather than a burden for someone who is not really old enough to know better. "You know, everybody wants to be out there in those situations," he said.
"You want to be counted on by your teammates, your coaches. It's nice that they have that trust in me to put me out there in those certain times of the game. I just play. I'm not thinking about what's going to happen if I score, if I don't score. I'm just a kid playing hockey, having some fun."
So buckle up, Los Angeles Kings, the 10-0 road monster of 2012.
This Stanley Cup final still might not be scintillating, but at least it is now in the full upright and locked position.