CHICAGO – Three Western Conference champions T-shirts hung over three stalls in the visitor's locker room at the United Center late Sunday night, the bottom hem of one dangling a few inches above Anze Kopitar's head. The Los Angeles Kings center eventually claimed it, though he made sure to consider it, too. Kopitar yanked the souvenir off the ledge and held it up to take it all in, needing a moment to confirm that the surreal was in fact very real. Another Game 7 on the road this postseason and another win for his team, precipitating another chance to win the Stanley Cup. The burgeoning dynasty was supposed to be housed just down the hall. But just as an earthquake struck back home, Los Angeles shook up the conversation about the league's most dominant franchises.
“Ohhhh, baby,” Kopitar quietly said as he left the room, with a murmur of celebration and relief at the end of one of the most thrilling series anyone can remember. It ended breathlessly, as it had to, with an Alec Martinez blast skimming off a Chicago Blackhawks sweater and into the net for a 5-4 overtime win and the opportunity for the Kings to win a second championship in three seasons starting Wednesday night against the New York Rangers. No other club in history had won three Game 7s away from their building in one postseason. To do so, the Kings game back to tie this decisive contest not once, not twice, but thrice, their first lead coming on the winning score a little less than six minutes into the extra session. That was the answer to the Blackhawks threatening to become only the second team ever to eradicate a 3-1 series deficit in the conference final.
So after a combined total of 51 goals and a steady flume of intensity, the last two Stanley Cup champs shook hands in detente and disbelief.
“Tonight was different, just from the series,” Kings captain Dustin Brown said of moseying through the traditional end-of-series platitudes. “That was probably the most emotional seven games I've ever played, combined. The most emotional series, if you want to call it that, because of how games were won and lost. It was back and forth. At the end of the day, you have the last two Stanley Cup champions and a result that's great for the NHL.”
The Blackhawks, understandably, might not have offered so charitable an assessment in the immediate aftermath. They blew a 2-0 first-period lead on Sunday and took a one-goal advantage into the third period, ultimately undone by Marian Gaborik's tying score with about seven minutes to play and then Martinez's game-winner that deflected off defenseman Nick Leddy.
It was a gutting defeat, with Chicago denied a chance to become the first back-to-back champions since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998. But this was no pratfall one step short of battling for another title. Still, one wonders if a thunderclap of recognition will arrive during the next few days of postmortem contemplation. The Blackhawks all along contended – maybe just as a typical postseason bromide, maybe not – that they hadn't quite met their potential this spring. There was just enough sloppiness in this series to suggest that they were dismayingly right, and they were punished for it by a team that was their equal or very arguably their superior.
On Sunday, Los Angeles scored twice – including on Gaborik's tying goal – when Chicago defenders more or less simply lost track of scoring threats. And the series finished with the wingers on the Hawks' top line – Marian Hossa and Bryan Bickell – scoring one goal between them. The brilliance of Patrick Kane and the emergence of Brandon Saad nearly compensated – they combined for another four points on Sunday, making it 15 between them in the final three games of the series – but it wasn't enough. “We were pretty close to getting to the big dance,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said. “You look at how close we were, how competitive it was. It's a tough league. It's a tough thing to do, to win the Cup. One shot away from going to try to do it again...I've lost some tough games, but nothing like tonight.”
Predictably, that disappointment was inversely proportionate to the verve in the Kings' room. It might be that geography and myriad interests muffle just what Los Angeles is accomplishing here, but there was no shortage of plaudits hurled Chicago's way last June for becoming the first two-time Cup winner of the salary cap era. The Kings have a chance to match that, and reaching three straight conference finals in some ways provides them a fractionally better argument for consistency. (The Blackhawks are at two conference finals in a row and counting, but that was preceded by two first-round playoff exits.)
Vanquishing Chicago one year after getting wiped out in five games was a necessary step, then, in the near- and far-term assessment of Los Angeles. For the immediate future, their victory reinforced an air of invincibility for their final series against the Rangers. The Kings have survived seven elimination games in this postseason alone. “A lot of guys in this room, first off, they're playing in the NHL because pressure is what they thrive under,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “Last year, I felt like their team was a little bit better. This year we felt like we were the better team. We were just never going to let that go away.”
But in the longer view, Los Angeles had to beat Chicago to prove that it occupied the same plane, that its structure and plan was just as viable. That the overheated talk about dynasties might have to include one more squad.
“You look across the hall, the reason they've done it is the way their team is built,” Brown said. “I think we're built in a very similar manner, in the sense that we've had a group of guys that haven been together. I can't stress that enough. They have that core group of guys and they find ways to mix in guys each and every year to contend. We've done that the last three years.
Added Kopitar: “It's a good core, I think. Some character guys that are lightening up the room, obviously. It's a great mix of everything, of veteran presence, leadership, young bucks stepping up. You name it, we got it in here.”
Reaching the exalted level the Blackhawks occupy will require the Kings to hoist the Cup once again. Even as they host Game 1 and will be viewed as the favorite, they'd be the first to cite their undulating postseason journey as testament to the guarantee of absolutely nothing in the playoffs. Asked for his assessment of the Rangers, Kings coach Darryl Sutter cited their great goaltending...and their great defense...and their great forwards...and their great special teams. He likely left out the Madison Square Garden ticket scanners only because he was hustling to the charter flight back home.
“We're up against it again,” Sutter said, betraying the faintest smile.
It's their natural state at this point. Yet nevertheless, a large crate featuring the word “Campbell” written upon it in black marker was wheeled into their room late Sunday. The Clarence S. Campbell Bowl was untouched on the ice and then stuffed away to behold another time. In the most exhausting way, at the end of an unforgettable series, the Kings were conference champions and four wins away from another Stanley Cup title.
As he walked down the hall toward the waiting team bus, Kings defenseman Jake Muzzin was greeted by a suited congratulator and a forceful high five.