By Allan Muir
Say this much about the Los Angeles Kings: They went out fighting.
They scrapped their way back from what had to be a spirit-crushing 2-0 deficit n the first minutes of Game 5. They battled for the equalizer after Patrick Kane scored what looked to be the clincher with just over three minutes remaining in the third. And then they traded punches with the Blackhawks for more than 30 minutes of extra time before Kane drove home the dagger on a gloriously executed two-on-one with Jonathan Toews.
They fell short of repeating as Stanley Cup champs, but this was a gutsy performance from a team that ends the season knowing it had completely emptied the tank.
"It's not easy to repeat, but we came in, we gave ourselves a good chance," said defenseman Rob Scuderi. "We were stopped here in the Western Conference Finals, but overall I’m pretty proud of the team, especially considering tonight in that early 2-0 hole. It looked like we folded up shop and called it a season to a better team on home ice, but we battled back. We stayed with it, and at least we gave ourselves a chance."
The loss ended a streak of six consecutive playoff series victories for the Kings, adding up to 25 postseason wins over the past two years. No one should hang their heads after that. But questions about what went wrong -- and what to do about it -- are inevitable.
Ultimately, the Kings failed because of their inability to win on the road, a cruel irony considering they were such inhospitable guests last year, setting an NHL record with 10 consecutive road wins on the way to the Cup. They dropped all three games played in Chicago this series and were just 1-8 away from the Staples Center in the playoffs. "We wanted to keep playing until the end of June," Jarret Stoll said. "We just couldn't win one on the road."
It's tough to say why, exactly. The margin for error thins quickly on the road. One fewer save, a less aggressive forecheck, a scoring bid that sails wide instead of going bar down. Any or all of these can turn the tide of a game. And they're more likely to occur when guys are as banged up as the Kings were.
"[We had] three, four guys that were game time [decisions] after Game 6 in San Jose, literally," coach Darryl Sutter said. "I think most teams are going to say that the farther you go. Also tells you how tough it is to win. You have to stay healthy. You have to be close to 100 percent, especially with your top guys. I know we weren't."
Among the walking wounded: Stoll (concussion), Mike Richards (concussion), Dustin Brown (torn PCL), Justin Williams (separated shoulder) and Drew Doughty (tweaked ankle.) Chances are that list will grow by a couple over the next few days. As I wrote in my game story last night, the Kings paid a heavy price in their earlier series against St. Louis and San Jose. The Kings won those two battles, but ultimately lost the war to defend the Cup because of the physical toll exacted by the Blues and Sharks.
The trick now is ensuring next year's club learns from this defeat and is better prepared to finish the job, and so the focus falls on Dean Lombardi as he re-tools his roster. The Kings' GM has $52.5 million committed to just 14 players, leaving just over $11 million to spackle over the holes and make a key upgrade or two, including a top-six left wing and a bottom-pairing defender who can take care of his own zone first.
Dustin Penner, Rob Scuderi and Brad Richardson are UFAs. None of these vets are likely to be back. Bottom-six forwards Kyle Clifford, Trevor Lewis and Jordan Nolan are RFAs. Their physicality is key to maintaining the team's identity, but they have to make themselves available at the right price. Breakout star Slava Voynov and Jake Muzzin are locks to be re-signed, but fellow RFA Alec Martinez might have played his last game with the team.
The same is probably true for young goaltender Jonathan Bernier. With no first-round pick in this year's draft (it was dealt to Columbus as part of the Jeff Carter trade), Bernier's ability to maximize the return for the promising RFA may be the most important call Lombardi makes all summer. It's always tough to fall short of the goal, especially when a team gets this close, but the Kings look to have the pieces in place to stay in contention for years to come.