If the Los Angeles Kings can't spark Sunbelt hockey, no team can.
The Kings are the first team in NHL history to win three straight seven-game series to begin a playoff season after Sunday's 5-4, overtime win in Chicago in the Western Conference Final. L.A. clinched all of those series on the road with exhilarating offense, withering forward depth, skill and speed that had never been a trademark of this team before this postseason.
For the first time in this postseason, L.A. will have the home-ice advantage when it faces the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday at Staples Center.
As is often the case in overtime, the Kings were the beneficiaries of a lucky bounce when Alec Martinez's shot from the point caromed off Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy and past goalie Corey Crawford to give L.A. its second Western Conference title in three seasons. It was the first lead the Kings held the entire game, but they rallied from deficits of 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 to force the overtime.
"We came through a lot of adversity through the game," Kings coach Darryl Sutter said. "You need everybody when you get to Game 7. You're not into the individual part of it. There's always guys that score big goals, make big plays. But you need everybody in your lineup."
Chicago appeared in control when it grabbed a 2-0 lead just 8:36 into the game on goals from Brandon Saad and Jonathan Toews. But L.A.'s Jeff Carter and Justin Williams evened things before the period was over.
From that point, it was a series of punches and counterpunches between the best two teams in the NHL. Chicago's Patrick Sharp scored on a crazy bounce to give the Hawks a 3-2 lead after one period, but L.A.'s Tyler Toffoli tied it midway through the second period before Sharp gave the Blackhawks their last lead late in the second period at 4-3.
Chicago had a bad breakdown on L.A.'s game-tying goal with 7:17 remaining in regulation, when two Hawks left Marian Gaborik all alone to swipe a rebound past Crawford for his league-leading 12th goal of the playoffs. After that, it was anyone's game.
Chicago was trying to become the first repeat champion since Detroit did it in 1997 and 1998, and the Blackhawks battled back from a 3-1 series deficit to force the deciding game of an epic series at home.
That was of little solace to Toews, the team's captain, in the locker room afterward.
"People forget pretty quick the team that came up short," he said. "We never want to be that team."
Los Angeles has a chance to win its second Stanley Cup in the past three seasons, and it will be a heavy favorite against New York, which won the East but still hasn't earned much respect after avoiding the mighty Boston Bruins, the only team many analysts felt was a real Cup threat from the Eastern Conference.
Boston was upset in the second round by longtime nemesis Montreal, but the Rangers were almost always in control against the Canadiens and New York is playing its best hockey of the season with forward depth that looks capable of hanging with the Kings and a goaltender, Henrik Lunqvist, who is playing far better hockey than his counterpart, Jonathan Quick.
PLAY OF THE DAY
The game-winner: How could it be anything else in overtime of a Game 7? It looked like a harmless play, but the Kings' Justin Williams did the work in the corner to slide the puck out to Alec Martinez, who followed that age-old advice of just getting the puck to the net. One more crazy bounce -- this game had a lot of them -- and the Kings were headed to the Cup Final.
Jeff Carter's first-period goal: The Hawks were flying early and grabbed a 2-0 lead. Would Game 7 be a blowout? Carter answered that question when he batted a puck out of the air late in the first period that was perilously close to being a high stick. Instead, the puck went past goalie Corey Crawford, officials ruled it a legal goal and the Kings were rallying again, as they seem to have done a hundred times this postseason.
1. RW Dustin Brown, Los Angeles: Two primary assists, eight shots, three hits and two blocked shots for the Kings captain, who defined leadership in Sunday.
2. LW Brandon Saad, Chicago: A goal, an assist and high energy again from the 21-year-old budding star, who proved he belongs among Chicago's top six forwards from here on out.
3. RW Justin Williams, Los Angeles: Mr. Playoffs did it again. He had the game-tying goal that brought L.A. back from an early 2-0 hole, and he did the work to earn the primary assist on Alec Martinez's game-winner.
Los Angeles 5, Chicago 4 (OT)
Series: Los Angeles won 4-3.
Key stat: The last four Stanley Cup champions have been eliminated in overtime the following year.
Key player: LW Marian Gaborik, Los Angeles. Gaborik is a free agent at the end of the season. With a dozen playoff goals, he's going to cash in big-time.
What we learned: The rest of the Western Conference still has some catching up to do with these two clubs. Chicago wasn't a great defensive team this season, and its inability to clamp down on leads ultimately cost it against a Kings team suddenly surging on offense.
Chicago blew three leads in this game, but these two teams look so loaded with talent and speed, and they both possess so much playoff savvy that it is enticing to envision a budding rivalry, with each team having knocked the other out of the conference finals in the last two seasons.
Chicago still has to decide what to do about its forward depth. The Hawks shortened their bench in this series and could clearly use more help up the middle, with 2012 top pick Teuvo Teravainen probably getting a long look in camp next year. But Chicago will be a bit cap-strapped, especially if the Canadian dollar keeps dropping the cap ceiling. Still, the Hawks have the core pieces intact and clearly this series could have gone either way, so just a little tweaking and maybe renewed hunger could be enough to get the Blackhawks back to the Cup Finals next season.
Next game: Los Angeles will host the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final on Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET.
Final thought: None of the four major sports has gone longer without a repeat champion than the NHL. The NHL's salary cap is certainly a factor when compared to Major League Baseball. The NHL's larger number of players impacting outcomes makes it far more difficult to repeat than in the NBA, and the larger number of teams qualifying for the postseason than the NFL increases the chance that a new team will rise up.
Throw in the inordinate impact of goaltending and the war of attrition that is the NHL playoffs, and even great teams like Chicago and L.A. have a hard time pulling off the feat. When someone finally does do the deed, it will make it all the more remarkable.
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