LOS ANGELES – Another goal, and another goal, and now it was real. It wasn't going to slip away. It was going to happen.
For 45 years they had waited – the hardcore fans and bandwagon hoppers, from the good times of Marcel Dionne and Wayne Gretzky, to the bad times of losing and even bankruptcy – and now their Los Angeles Kings, finally, improbably, convincingly, were about to earn their crown.
They chanted: "WE WANT THE CUP!" They held up their cameras and smartphones, row after row, a sea of shining screens, to capture the moment. They counted down: "THREE! TWO! ONE!"
Boom. The streamers popped down from the rafters, and the players threw up their gloves and sticks. With a bloody, controversial 6-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils on Monday night, the Kings won the franchise's first Stanley Cup and completed their odd odyssey.
This is a team that made two big trades and a coaching change, a team that finished second-to-last in the NHL in scoring and grabbed the final playoff spot in the West. But this is a team with a great goaltender in Jonathan Quick, a team with talent that came together at the right time, a team that underscored just how unpredictable the salary cap and parity have made this league.
The Kings became the first No. 8 seed to win the Cup since the league started seeding conferences in 1994. They went a stunning 16-4 overall and 10-1 on the road. And though they let a 3-0 series lead slide to 3-2 in the final, creating tension in the early going at Staples Center – loud gasps, desperate groans – in the end that allowed captain Dustin Brown to grab that Cup and hoist it high at home as the roar rose around him.
Said Kings center Anze Kopitar: "It's 45 years of frustration coming out."
Brown was surrounded. The Cup sat on the red carpet on the ice, and the camermen filmed and the photographers snapped as he put his infant son in the big silver bowl. The boy cried. Brown scooped him up and held him to his chest.
That's OK, kid. Your daddy was a force the first three rounds – hitting, scoring – and though he was quiet for much of the final series, he was the hero again in Game 6, even if that meant there was a goat on the other side.
[Related: Kings reign supreme with convincing win over Devils in Game 6]
Steve Bernier was a big reason the Devils were in this position, playing well with the rest of their fourth line, and he never should have been in this position Monday night. L.A's Jarret Stoll should have been called for boarding New Jersey's Stephen Gionta. The Kings should have taken a penalty. The play should have been whistled dead.
But that doesn't excuse what Bernier did. He hit defenseman Rob Scuderi from behind into the end boards as Scuderi turned to play the puck. Scuderi's head slammed into the glass. His blood dripped onto the ice.
Referee Dan O'Rourke made the hard, right call – five minutes for boarding, game misconduct. Bernier had to sit in the Devils' dressing room and listen to the roars as the Kings capitalized with not one, not two, but three power-play goals, putting away the game before the first period was even over.
Brown deflected a shot into the net. Then he fired a shot that Jeff Carter deflected into the net. Then Trevor Lewis jammed a puck into the net. And then came the first chants: "WE WANT THE CUP!"
By then, it was only a matter of time. Carter would score again in the second. The Kings would add two more late in the third. Commissioner Gary Bettman would hand the Cup to Brown.
"It's another step," said Kings general manager Dean Lombardi. "He was great. Then he fell off a little. Now he rises to the occasion."
Lombardi came across the ice, away from the mob by the benches, and found his wife, Wandamae. She jumped. They hugged. She screamed.
"I love you, Dean!"
"Twenty-some-odd years, he's been working so hard to make this happen," she said. "I can't tell you. I mean, it seems like forever … until it's over."
[Related: Kings goalie Jonathan Quick named playoff MVP]
Twenty-four years, to be exact. Lombardi has been an NHL executive and scout all that time, trying to win that Cup, and look at how he broke through. If this is a copycat league, is this the new blueprint?
Lombardi made a major offseason trade for Mike Richards, the captain of the Philadelphia Flyers, known as a fierce competitor and leader, but also known for fighting with the media and having too much of a good time. He fought a contract battle with star defenseman Drew Doughty, who missed training camp, signed a $56 million contract, suffered a separated shoulder and struggled.
After the Kings floundered early in the season, Lombardi fired coach Terry Murray in December. As soon as he made his decision, he flew to Boston and put Murray out of his misery – knowing he would have to use assistant John Stevens as an interim for a handful of games – because he didn't want to leave Murray hanging.
He talked to the team. He tried to hold things together until his old friend Darryl Sutter could leave his Alberta farm and take over. He shrugged it off when critics wondered whether recycling Sutter – a former coach and GM who had been out of the game – was the right choice.
Then he made another major trade before the deadline in February, acquiring Carter – the guy the Flyers had dumped the same day they had dumped Richards for the same reasons, the guy who didn’t exactly act like a pro when he joined the Columbus Blue Jackets, sulking, unhappy to be there.
"As management, you've got to do what you think is right, not what people think is right," said assistant GM Ron Hextall. "If you don't, you're never going to get to this point. There's a lot of risk. We all know that. You've got to go with your heart, make decisions that you believe in and go with them. You can't worry about what people say or think."
Lombardi never did, and now he was standing by the bench, accepting hugs from colleagues and handshakes from fans reaching over the railing. He thanked Murray and Sutter both. He pointed to his support staff. He praised the players.
He pinched himself.
"I don't know if it's real right now," he said.
Everywhere on the ice, there was a scene, somebody who had contributed something large or small, somebody who had dreamed of this day.
Quick accepted the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs' most valuable player – and the stoic goalie actually smiled, a little, before quickly handing it off and waiting for the big prize with his teammates.
"At our lowest moments, I think the biggest thing is nobody ever turned on someone," Quick said. "Everybody stuck with it."
[Related: Kings make Devils pay for Steve Bernier's major penalty]
Brown grabbed Sutter by the jacket and shook him with two hands. Sutter, a man who often looks like he's sucking on a lemon, just smiled and smiled. He had been in the barn when Lombardi called, and though he said he wasn't shoveling you-know-what at the time, he had been earlier that day. Now, after a lifetime in hockey but less than a season with the Kings, he had won his first Cup. There is no more you-know-what to shovel.
"Seems like a long time ago, middle of December," Sutter said. "But you know what? You look at the big picture now, and I was right … about what type of players these guys were."
Richards and Carter, the much-maligned friends from Philly, shared some words, though Carter wouldn't share them with reporters. "I can't tell you," he said. "You guys would have too much fun with them."
Carter choked up at one point. "Dean showed a lot of faith in me," he said. "A lot of people doubted us. A lot of people doubted me. Proved them wrong." At another point, Richards skated by wearing a gray championship T-shirt and holding a blue bottle of Bud Light.
"It was a frustrating year," Richards said. "It was ups and downs. It was highs and lows. But this is one of the best groups I've ever been a part of … the resiliency, the camaraderie that we had. It was awesome."
It was. And as friends and family members lingered on the ice, and as the Cup eventually disappeared with the players into the privacy of the dressing room, a few people wore plastic gold crowns. Even a superstar like Kopitar had one atop his new championship hat. They looked like something you might get at Burger King, but somehow, in the delirium, they didn't look silly at all.
Finally, the crown fits. Wear it.
"It's unbelievable," Kopitar said. "I've gone through a lot of struggles with this team. We were down at the bottom for a couple years, but right now, top of the world."
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