After a Stanley Cup championship run that stunned everybody but the players in the Los Angeles Kings' locker room, they've all returned to attempt the improbable again.
Really. They're all back in black - every player who touched the ice during that magical run to a long-suffering franchise's first NHL title.
"We all know this is a rare situation when you get the chance to try it again with the same team," defenseman Drew Doughty said. "We don't take it lightly, and we're going to use it to our advantage."
The Kings will raise their first championship banner in the Staples Center rafters Saturday before facing the Chicago Blackhawks.
Their fans are still on a high from last season, when the Kings took a 3-0 lead in all four playoff series, never played an elimination game, and only trailed for about 184 minutes in the entire postseason.
While their roster hasn't changed, their reputation will never be the same - but the Kings are confident they can handle the scrutiny in an abbreviated season after going 40-27-15 last year.
"We know we have the experience and the leadership to handle the short amount of time," said Dustin Penner, who probably gave a free-agent discount to the Kings for the chance to return. "We know we're going to be targeted by every team that comes in here and in every building we go to on the road, but we're ready for that."
After the eighth-seeded club coalesced at the perfect time for a championship surge, management decided this team was too good to break up.
Jonathan Quick, their Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie, got a 10-year contract extension. Captain Dustin Brown, top scorer Anze Kopitar and the solid defense are back intact. The Kings even inked coach Darryl Sutter and general manager Dean Lombardi to multiyear contract extensions Friday, securing every significant bit of the team that ended 45 years of frustration for Los Angeles hockey fans with a 16-4 rampage through the postseason.
"Dean did a great job of keeping the team together," said Sutter, who is beginning his first full season with the club. "To know that we have every guy back is pretty cool. I don't know if it's an advantage, because there's so many other factors, but it's great for the guys to get this chance, because nobody gets it in sports."
The Kings must begin without Kopitar and defenseman Willie Mitchell, who still aren't back to full strength from offseason injuries.
Chicago, meanwhile, still has the same cast of stars from its championship run three seasons ago, with captain Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa, but salary-cap issues forced management to part with key pieces of the supporting cast. And they haven't quite found that same sort of mix.
One and done in the playoffs the past two seasons after beating Philadelphia for the championship, the Blackhawks believe they can make a big run in a season where there's little room for error.
"Last year, we had too many ups and downs," Kane said.
There was a big lull in the middle of the season when the Blackhawks (45-26-11) dropped nine in a row. They regrouped to finish fourth in the Central Division with the fifth-most points in the Western Conference (101), but the margin for error this time is as thin as a skate blade.
"A 48-game season, you go through those lulls, you could be out of a playoff spot," Kane said. "You've got to count on everybody in the lineup. You've got to have good depth. Special teams have to be good."
A big issue last season was their special teams.
The power play, led by Toews, Kane and Patrick Sharp, scored 42 times in 82 games, connecting on 15.2 percent of chances, and ranked 26th in the 30-team NHL. Things were so bad that coach Joel Quenneville switched power play duties from assistant Mike Haviland to Mike Kitchen during the season and ultimately fired Haviland.
Another question mark is in the net.
No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford allowed two soft goals in overtime that cost the Blackhawks in the playoffs against Phoenix, and he didn't post a shutout in 57 appearances last season. His goals-against average of 2.72 was more than a goal worse than league leader Brian Elliott of St. Louis.
The Blackhawks want more from him. They want more, period.
"We want more of a team identity, that we're a tough team to play against, a hard working team that does the little things," goalie Ray Emery said. "It's a new season. It's a good thing. We get to wipe the slate clean. We know that we have tons of talent. We've got role players and depth. It's exciting to correct some mistakes and move forward."
Los Angeles has won three in a row over Chicago after going 1-9-1 in the previous 11 meetings.
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