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NHL champions: Kings complete epic Stanley Cup quest, and the future looks bright in L.A.

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports
Kings defenseman Alec Martinez carries the Stanley Cup after beating the Rangers in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 13, 2014, in Los Angeles. The Kings won, 3-2, with Martinez scoring the winning goal in double overtime. (AP)
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Kings defenseman Alec Martinez carries the Stanley Cup after beating the Rangers in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final on June 13, 2014, in Los Angeles. The Kings won, 3-2, with Martinez scoring the winning goal in double overtime. (AP)

LOS ANGELES — The long road ended in the 95th minute of the 108th game. Deep into double overtime of another thriller Friday night, after nine months of grueling hockey, Alec Martinez grabbed the puck in the Los Angeles Kings’ zone and led the rush.

It all happened so fast – pass, pass, shot, deflection – and then time seemed to slow as if this were a sports movie. The puck hit the right pad of New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and ricocheted right to the blade of Martinez’s stick. Martinez smacked the puck into the open net, and that, finally, was it.

The Kings had won, 3-2, and earned their second Stanley Cup in three years – emphasis on earned. Martinez jumped, tossed his stick, tossed his gloves, waved his hands and hugged his teammates as Lundqvist lay flat on his stomach.

“After it went in,” Martinez said, “I think I blacked out.”

From euphoria? Or exhaustion? Or both?

“What we went through this year makes it so much more special,” said winger Justin Williams, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player and the third Cup of his career. “Each Cup is unique, but god, we earned this one.”

Two years ago, the Kings made an incredible run to the Cup. They took a 3-0 lead in all four series. They went 16-4. They ended 45 years of frustration by winning the first championship in franchise history.

This year, the Kings made another incredible run to the Cup, but this was an incredible of a different kind. The Kings lost their first three games to the San Jose Sharks. They were one game from being swept in the first round. But they became only the fourth team in NHL history to rally from a 3-0 deficit and win a best-of-7 series, and that was just the start.

They rallied from a 3-2 deficit in the second round and beat the Anaheim Ducks in seven. They won an epic Western Conference final with the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks in seven, rallying from 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 deficits in Game 7 and winning in overtime when Martinez scored on a deflection. They became the first team ever to win three seven-game series to make the Cup final, and they won all three Game 7s on the road. They won seven times when facing elimination, the most ever for a Cup winner.

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Kings winger Justin Williams hoists the Stanley Cup after defeating the Rangers in Game 5 of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center. (USA Today)

Kings winger Justin Williams hoists the Stanley Cup after defeating the Rangers in Game 5 of the 2014 Stanley Cup …

Though they were favored to win the Cup final and ended up beating the Rangers in five, they faced 2-0 deficits in Games 1 and 2 and won both in OT. They needed some breaks to win Game 3, and then they needed two chances to eliminate New York, a tough, resilient team in its own right. Game 5 was Game 26 of the Kings’ run, the most ever for a Cup winner. They overcame a 2-1 third-period deficit, and then they survived a frantic OT. Each team struck iron. Twice.

“It’s probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown, standing at center ice, shortly after he raised the Cup. “It’s something special to do it the way that we did it. … We made history the first time one way, and then we made history another way this time.”

Williams deserved that Conn Smythe. He had nine goals and 25 points overall. He had two goals and seven points in the final, leading all scorers. He reflected his team – a blend of old school and new school, a character player known for coming through in clutch moments and a possession monster as measured by analytics.

But Drew Doughty could have won it for logging so many minutes against top competition and leading NHL defensemen in scoring with 18 points. Or Anze Kopitar could have won it for matching up against some of the other top centers in the West – Joe Thornton, Ryan Getzlaf, Jonathan Toews – and leading the playoffs in scoring with 26 points. Or Marian Gaborik could have won it for leading the playoffs in goals with 14. Or Jeff Carter could have won it for his 10 goals. Or …

Go down the list. These Kings were a beast of a team – deep, well-balanced, determined. Constructed by general manager Dean Lombardi, motivated by coach Darryl Sutter, they were the NHL’s best defensive team in the regular season and the league’s best offensive team in the playoffs. They controlled the puck. They never quit.

“It’s the best thing we’ve ever seen in sports,” said Hall of Famer Luc Robitaille, the longtime King now the team’s president of business operations. “I don’t care what sport you like or you love. Just look at what these guys have done. I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t know if I’ll ever see it again. It’s amazing.”

We might see the Kings here again, though.

After the Kings won the Cup in 2012, the NHL lost almost half a season to a lockout. Lombardi spent the time researching how to win again. He talked to executives and coaches who had sustained success in hockey and other professional sports, trying to learn their secrets. One of them told him not to recreate or recapture the past, but to reinvent the team. One of them told him he wouldn’t understand the challenge until he went through it – and another championship would be even more rewarding.

“Man, do I know what he’s talking about,” Lombardi said. “I mean, it’s so different. … Now the expectations are there.”

The Kings lost to the Blackhawks in the Western Conference final last year but kept growing – from core pieces like Doughty and Kopitar, to newcomers like Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson. Lombardi, who added Carter and Mike Richards with bold moves in 2011-12, added Gaborik with another bold move in 2014. This was the result, and this is not the end. This is a team with a lot of young pieces. Doughty is only 24. Kopitar is only 26.

“I think there’s a lot more in a lot of them, too,” Lombardi said. “They’re not done. And so hopefully we can keep them together and they can continue to grow.”

It is a testament to the parity in the NHL, especially in the West, that the Kings lost 10 games and still won the Cup. It will not be any easier to beat the Sharks or the Ducks or the Blackhawks in the future, not to mention teams like the St. Louis Blues or the Dallas Stars or the Colorado Avalanche. No one has repeated since 1998, let alone since the salary cap arrived in 2005-06. But the Kings should remain in contention for the foreseeable future.

“I think we’re going to be very dangerous for the next few years,” Robitaille said.

Asked about winning two Cups in the salary-cap era, Lombardi was modest.

“Well, Chicago did it,” he said.

Yeah, but only Chicago and L.A. have done it, he was told. He smiled.

“The cap hasn’t been around that long,” he said. “So let’s try for three.”

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