One year after capturing the franchise's first Stanley Cup title, the Los Angeles Kings were dethroned as the champions of the NHL on Saturday in a heartbreaking 4-3 double-overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 5 of the Western Conference Final.
Los Angeles showed the heart of a champion by erasing a 2-0 first-period deficit, and then tying the game at 3-3 with just over nine seconds remaining in regulation when veteran forward Mike Richards scored to force overtime.
After more than 30 minutes of exciting, fast-paced overtime hockey, the Blackhawks ended the series (and the longest playoff game in Kings history) with a Patrick Kane goal. It gave the superstar winger his first playoff hat trick since 2009.
The Kings' elimination also made for an interesting fact:
Kings are the 3rd straight defending Cup Champion eliminated from playoffs with OT loss— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 9, 2013
It was a valiant effort by the Kings, who defended the Stanley Cup admirably. Unfortunately for the defending champs, they ran into a healthier and hotter opponent.
For the entire summer, Kings players and fans will think of the "what if?" scenarios following this difficult defeat.
If Los Angeles had won Game 5, it would have gone back home to the Staples Center for Game 6, where it was 8-1 in the playoffs. The Kings had 15 wins in their last 16 games on home ice, including the last few weeks of the regular season.
Not only would the Kings have taken the momentum in the series with them to Los Angeles had they won Game 5, but the impressive performances of star players Anze Kopitar and Mike Richards would have also given the team even more confidence.
Kopitar scored his first goal of the series to tie Game 5, 2-2, in the third period. He also picked up an assist on Richards' late equalizer at the end of regulation.
Unfortunately for the Kings, they did not receive enough offensive production on a consistent basis from their best players in the conference final. The frustrating part of this lack of offense was that the players most responsible all played a significant part in last year's championship-winning campaign.
|Jeff Carter||1||3.40||6 ||5
|Dustin Brown||0||0.80||5 ||1|
|Anze Kopitar||1 ||1.60||2 ||3|
|Total (Five Games)||3||8.00||17||10|
The four players listed above combined for 64 points in 20 games during last season's championship run, but they totaled just 31 points through the team's 18 postseason games in 2013.
Los Angeles was able to survive the first two rounds with the lowest-scoring offense (two goals per game) among the four conference finalists because reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner and starting goaltender Jonathan Quick played at an elite level.
But when the Kings were forced to play a Blackhawks team that was more capable of scoring goals consistently against Quick than the St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks were in Rounds 1 and 2, the team's offense was unable to score the important goals late in games to extend its season.
It also wouldn't be surprising if we learned over the next few days that several Kings players were dealing with difficult injuries for a good portion of the playoffs, especially in the conference final.
Sutter said 3 or 4 players were so injured they were gametime decisions after San Jose series. "Tells you how tough it is to win."— Helene Elliott (@helenenothelen) June 9, 2013
Richards returned for Game 5 after missing the three previous games because of a concussion. Veteran center Jarret Stoll missed the last five games of his team's second-round series against the Sharks, but he did play in the entirety of the Chicago series.
Per Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times, defenseman Drew Doughty and forwards Dustin Brown and Justin Williams also played through injuries suffered in the first two rounds. The absence of shutdown defenseman Willie Mitchell, who missed the entire 2013 season with a knee injury, greatly impacted the Kings. He was a key component of the 2012 team that lifted the Cup.
Every team is banged up at this point in the season, and there is no question that the Blackhawks were the better team in this series and deserve to represent the Western Conference in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final.
With that said, the Kings showed tremendous character, resiliency and determination to fight through injuries and attempt to become the first back-to-back champions in over a decade. When several key players are dealing with tough injuries, it's incredibly difficult to win games against an opponent as talented and as deep as the Blackhawks.
No club since the Detroit Red Wings in 1998 has repeated as champions, but the Kings deserve credit for making a deep playoff run in this lockout-shortened season. They became the first defending champions to reach the conference finals since the Red Wings in 2008-09.
The good news for Kings fans is that the future is bright for Hollywood's hockey club. Los Angeles has a ton of talent, a solid core of young players and experienced veterans, as well as the world's best goaltender in Quick.
Who will win the Stanley Cup?
But the positive outlook on next season won't take away the pain and disappointment that the Kings are currently dealing with after a crushing defeat to end this year's playoff run.
After coming so close to reaching the Stanley Cup Final and getting an opportunity to repeat as champions, the Kings will certainly use the anger and disappointment from Saturday's loss to motivate them for next year, when they will be among the favorites to hoist the best trophy in sports.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston.