On Friday night, for the second time in three seasons, the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup.
It is a truism that the race for the NHL championship is a marathon and not a sprint, but even by hockey’s grueling standards, the Kings’ road to the Cup was particularly arduous. That, of course, makes the team’s victory all the sweeter, as the team and its fans finally celebrated after Alec Martinez's goal capped a thrilling 3-2 double-overtime victory over the New York Rangers in Game 5.
For the third season in a row, Los Angeles entered the playoffs as a lower seed. In 2012, when the team won the first Cup in franchise history, the Kings squeaked into the playoffs, taking the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. In 2013, when the Kings went to the conference final before falling to the eventual champion Chicago Blackhawks, they only secured a playoff position by a meager four points.
In 2014, once again, the Kings started the postseason on the road as the No. 6 seed in the West, and the NHL’s new playoff alignment guaranteed them a brutal road to the championship.
The first round saw the Kings face off against the San Jose Sharks. San Jose tied with St. Louis for the fourth-most points during the regular season, and the Sharks had gone to the Western Conference Final twice in the previous four seasons. A legitimate Cup contender in their own right, the Sharks skated to a 3-0 series lead and looked unbeatable, but Los Angeles fought back, outscoring San Jose 18-5 over the final four games to complete a thrilling comeback.
After surviving the slugfest against San Jose, the Kings moved on to face the Anaheim Ducks in the second round. Coming off their second consecutive division win, the Ducks had finished just one point behind Boston for first in the NHL during the regular season, despite playing in the toughest division in hockey. Again, the series went seven games, with the Kings once more prevailing in the final contest.
With all due respect to the Sharks and Ducks, as well as to the Rangers, the Kings biggest challenge came in the third round. The Blackhawks had knocked off L.A. in the 2013 Western Conference Final en route to winning the Cup, and with two wins in previous four years, they were the NHL's dominant power.
The Western Conference Final thus produced not just the best hockey of the Kings’ run, but the best hockey of the entire playoffs. Chicago fought back after falling behind 3-1, winning a pair of back-and-forth games by a single goal before falling in overtime of Game 7 on a goal from Alec Martinez, a goal that propelled the Kings to the Stanley Cup Final.
It would be unfair to call the Stanley Cup Final anticlimactic. Three of the Kings’ wins came in overtime, and both teams played an exciting offensive brand of hockey. Henrik Lundqvist, arguably the NHL’s best goalie over the last few years, was superb in net for the Rangers and ensured that even the Los Angeles victories were close-run affairs.
In their first two wins, the Kings came from behind after going down by two goals; in the finale, they knotted the score of the game midway through the third period and needed more than half an hour to clinch the Cup in overtime. A resilient team that refused to go away when down in a series or down in a game, Los Angeles proved itself impossible to eradicate, even for four of the NHL’s best teams.
"We have a team that simply will not be denied," Conn Smythe winner Justin Williams told reporters after clinching the Cup in Game 5.
In the larger context, the win establishes Los Angeles as not just the dominant team of the 2013-14 season, but as one of the preeminent clubs in this era of NHL hockey.
When Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins won the 2009 Stanley Cup after losing in the Final in 2008, the wide assumption was that the Pens were about to emerge as the NHL’s standard-bearer. Instead, we’ve seen a trio of teams rise to the forefront. In the East, the Boston Bruins have been to the Stanley Cup Final twice in four years, while in the West, the Blackhawks and Kings have now combined for four of the last five Stanley Cups.
The Kings have mastered the modern NHL game. They’re much beloved by old-school types for their size, strength, pugnacity and attention to defensive detail; they’re equally as loved by stats types for their dominant possession game and head coach who embraces that approach. With a core still in its prime, they aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
On Friday night, the Kings won their second Stanley Cup in franchise history. There’s no reason a group this talented can’t add more before they’re done.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.
Statistics courtesy of NHL.com.