And just like that, it was over. One of the finest Stanley Cup playoffs series in recent memory, perhaps one of the best ever, was finished, but with a result that has become perfectly familiar this postseason.
After a point shot from Alec Martinez took a fortuitous bounce through Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Nick Leddy and into the net at 5:47 of overtime, the Los Angeles Kings successfully ended yet another Game 7 on the road. The Kings have have needed and won Game 7 every step of the way this postseason. No team in NHL has history has ever won three Game 7s in the same postseason, let alone on the road.
Now the Kings will head off to their second Stanley Cup Final appearance in three years, where they will meet the New York Rangers. As an added bonus, for the first time this postseason, the Kings will actually have home-ice advantage, not that they’ve needed it yet.
Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals somewhat mirrored the Kings’ postseason. They were constantly playing catchup. It really wasn’t until this round that the Kings had ever really had control of a series. When they let that 3-1 series lead waste away before heading to yet another Game 7, it was unclear how they would react to having the roles flipped.
The Kings took Game 7 after coming back from deficits of 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 before winning 5-4. They survived, same as always.
For whatever reason, this team can’t seem to lose when facing elimination. On seven combined previous tries, the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Chicago Blackhawks all failed to put the Kings away when they had the chance.
But this Game 7 against the defending Stanley Cup champion was different than the previous two. The Kings mostly cruised in previous Games 7s with a 5-1 win over the Sharks and a 6-2 victory against the Ducks. The Blackhawks were not going to be an easy out, either, with a 13-0 record in Games 5-7 over the last two postseasons. They also had previously completed a 3-1 series comeback in last year’s Western Conference semifinals against the Detroit Red Wings. This was familiar ground, if not well traveled.
While the Blackhawks had been seasoned in elimination games, they had played in only two Games 7s over the past four years. The Kings had played in two over the last few weeks. LA’s roster also had 77 combined games of Game 7 experience with a stunning record of 70-7.
That probably has a lot to do with why they never went away despite trailing the game on three separate occasions.
Justin Williams, Mike Richards and Marian Gaborik are now 7-0 over their careers in Games 7. Williams, now and forever known as “Mr. Game 7,” had the Kings’ second goal. It was his seventh career Game 7 goal, tying Glenn Anderson for the record. He also added an assist on the game-winning goal, which gave him a record 14 points in Game 7s, moving him past Doug Gilmour.
Gaborik also scored in the contest, the late game-tying goal. And Jeff Carter, who has played in and won six career Game 7s, also scored.
When a team has players like that — guys that have been there so many times before — they all have to know that they’re never out of any game.
But it’s not just about the experience. One of the biggest differences between this Kings club and last year’s is the fact that for all of the grizzled postseason veterans the Kings have, it was the younger players of the organization that have helped energize this team.
Tyler Toffoli had a goal and an assist in the game. Jake Muzzin played 27:02 on the back end. Neither was there in 2012 when the Kings won. Toffoli has 13 points, while Muzzin has 11 as the younger duo helps fill the gaps as each gets more playing experience.
Martinez was on the Cup champion team, but had been in and out of the lineup over the last several years. His ninth point of the postseason was a Western Conference Finals clincher. Tanner Pearson teamed up with Toffoli and Carter to make up a formidable line that gave the Blackhawks fits.
That fresh blood in the lineup combined with those tremendous veteran players could have made all the difference. It allowed Darryl Sutter to lengthen his bench and the Kings had to know somebody was going to step up because someone always has in these settings.
This Game 7 was also different for the Kings in that Jonathan Quick wasn’t stopping everything. In the previous six elimination games, Quick had posted a save percentage over .955. He did make 37 saves, but also allowed four goals and posted a .902 mark in Game 7 against the Blackhawks. His postseason save percentage is now an uninspiring .906, or .040 worse than his Conn Smythe campaign en route to the Stanley Cup in 2012.
The Kings are winning without Quick stealing games like he did in 2012. That makes what their skaters are doing that much more impressive. The margin for error is so slim, so delicate, and often it is the goaltender that can make up the difference.
But for the Kings, throughout this entire postseason, they have willed themselves through these series with incredible performances from much of the lineup. Sixteen of the 18 skaters on the roster played at least 13 minutes and none played more than 30.
Darryl Sutter has the luxury of rolling three full lines regularly, with selective shifts for the fourth line. That keeps them in these series longer and makes games like these more manageable. That kind of depth is what helps a team win championships and it may be the secret to why they’ve survived.
Another important question, however, is why a team as good as the Kings is ending up in so many Game 7 situations? Quick’s .906 save percentage has something to do with it and the difficulty and somewhat randomness of the Stanley Cup playoffs show that even good teams fall on their faces sometimes.
The ability to close, however, in the direst situation, when the only other option is packing up the hockey bag and heading home, is something not all teams possess.
The Kings have scored 16 goals in their three Game 7s this year and have yielded seven. If Quick was going to have a bad game, the Kings certainly had the scoring depth to offset it. Unlike the other elimination games, they needed it on Sunday and got it.
With a Stanley Cup title close in the rearview mirror, the Kings still have a championship-caliber team. They may even have a better team overall than the Cup champion. It hasn’t always showed in the results during the regular season when they finished third in their division, or when they carried a 3-0 series deficit in the first round against the Sharks … or when they couldn’t close out the Blackhawks in the previous two tries.
The one thing that the Kings have that other teams don’t is a cavalcade of players that when Sutter looks down his bench and the team needs a big goal, he has a wealth of options. It could by Gaborik or Anze Kopitar or Carter or Williams or Toffoli or Drew Doughty. But the rest of the group can do the job as well.
This time it was Martinez. Next time it could be Dwight King or captain Dustin Brown. It doesn’t really matter. The Kings know that when the game is on the line, when their season is on the line and soon, when the Stanley Cup is on the line, someone is going to step up, someone is going to score and the Kings are going to survive again.
It seems to be all they know anymore.