LAS VEGAS — In a wondrous three-year period, the Los Angeles Kings won 41 playoff games and two Stanley Cups and changed hockey with their “heavy” game.
The Kings weren’t close to the fastest National Hockey League team, but they played a fast game and overpowered teams with their size and power in the offensive zone, dominating net fronts and puck possession. When they won their second Stanley Cup in 2014, Los Angeles’ star core players—as good as any team’s core players—were still comfortably in their 20s.
And in the three years that followed, the Kings missed the post-season twice and won only one playoff game.
Their playoff-opening 1-0 loss Wednesday against the Vegas Golden Knights dropped the Kings’ record to 1-5 since they defeated the New York Rangers in the 2014 final and paraded their second Cup around the Staples Center.
“It’s kind of hard to explain, but you don’t understand what you’re playing for until you’ve won it,” Kings winger Dustin Brown said after Thursday’s optional practice. “I remember back to those first couple of years in the post-season; we got knocked out and it was hard. But we didn’t understand what we were playing for at that point.
“Once you understand what you’re playing for, whether you get knocked out in the first round or the Stanley Cup final, it’s a tougher pill to swallow when you understand what you’ve lost.”
Norris Trophy-winning defenceman Drew Doughty, the best of the 11 Stanley Cup-winning Kings still with Los Angeles, bristled a little when asked if the clock is ticking on his team. But he misunderstood the question.
It’s not that time is running out on the Kings in this series (although, ask us again after Game 2 on Friday), but it is starting to get short for this group of players.
Brown, the team leader, and key centre Jeff Carter are 33. Star goalie Jonathan Quick is 32, and Hart Trophy-candidate Anze Kopitar is 30. They are not old, but they’re nearer to old than young as players. Injured defenceman Jake Muzzin is 29 and Doughty, facing a suspension in Game 2 for a hit-to-the-head on Golden Knight William Carrier on Wednesday, is only 28.
But, remember, Doughty is also a year away from unrestricted free agency and his stated desire to break the bank on his next contract has caused worry in L.A. about his future and where the Kings will be if he leaves.
So, yes, Wednesday was only one game against a Cinderella team that refuses to check what time it is. But it’s been four years since the Kings won a playoff series and the game, getting quicker, lighter and younger all the time, appears to be trending away from them.
“It’s just been hard,” Kopitar said of the last three years. “Because I don’t think we were playing very good hockey. Not making the playoffs two out of three years and then the one year we were in the playoffs, we got eliminated in the first round. Yeah, it’s a little bit frustrating. But that’s in the past.
“We certainly realize that the window (to win another Cup) is going to close eventually. But we’re not thinking about that. We’re thinking about the game tomorrow. We’re going step by step; that’s what you do.”
Los Angeles coach John Stevens said: “I think the people in this room are important. You don’t win with players; you win with people. You win with people that care and we’ve got an awful lot of people that care.”
After winning the Stanley Cup the last two seasons, the Pittsburgh Penguins are the new template for how most NHL teams try to play. They skate and pass quickly, attack in numbers and defend their zone by retrieving pucks and breaking out before opposing forwards can forecheck them into mistakes.
The Golden Knights play a lot like the Penguins do, although they have no Sidney Crosby.
But what the Kings share with the Penguins is guile and know-how, that experience and confidence of having overcome obstacles to win Stanley Cups.
“We’ve all been through these same experiences together,” Brown said. “I think that’s more important than individual experience, quite honestly.”
Brown’s game on Wednesday was his 82nd in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the equivalent of a full NHL season. He knows the number of chances the Kings have to win a third championship are dwindling.
“I think the older you get, the more you understand that,” he said. “I think it’s the younger guys you need to tell. We’ve had some players in here who’ve been lucky to win a Stanley Cup in their first couple of years. That generally doesn’t happen very often. I didn’t even play in the playoffs … the first (five) years in my career.
“Sometimes when you’re on a really good team, you just assume it’s going to happen every year. That’s not how it works.”