NEWARK, N.J. – The Los Angeles Kings aren't dead. It just seems that way.
For two months they waltzed through Vancouver and St. Louis and Phoenix and almost all of New Jersey, writing an outrageous script that winning the Stanley Cup was going to be easy. Of course it never was going to be, but when they made it look so, well, we started to believe it – started to talk about this team in the highest of regards. Like Wayne Gretzky/Mark Messier/Jari Kurri regards.
So now that the Kings have lost two straight in the Stanley Cup Final, allowing the New Jersey Devils to stick around a few more days, the pendulum has swung and the Kings are suddenly a desperate team on the ropes heading back to Los Angeles for a Game 6 they absolutely have to win, right?
The reality is somewhere in between.
This series was never the blowout it appeared to be even when the Kings held a 3-0 series lead. New Jersey could have won either – or both – of the first two games had they not hit a crossbar and missed an open net. And losing two straight isn't proof that L.A.'s on the verge of a total collapse. If not for a little help from the goalpost, the Devils would have been toast on Saturday night.
No, this final series is turning into what it's supposed to be: a torturous grind, affirming the notion that the route to the NHL's championship is the hardest in professional sport, which, when you're playing a game as physical as football three times a week for nine straight weeks, it absolutely is.
"This is the Stanley Cup Final," said Kings winger Justin Williams after Saturday night's 2-1 loss. "This thing ain't supposed to be easy."
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While the Kings did their best to emit an air of confidence following their second straight loss, it's impossible to ignore the situation. Yes, they're heading home to a crowd so desperate to see them win they'll be willing to fork over $1,000 just for a nosebleed seat, but the Kings are also just one loss away from a Game 7 back here in Jersey.
Breezing your way through the playoffs has its benefits. Facing your first bit of adversity when the Cup is on the line isn't one of them.
"I think they're so close to winning the Stanley Cup that I'm sure it's getting to them a little bit – to be able to have all these chances and not capitalize on them," said Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. "We're looking to just stay alive. Got to win one more game."
The Kings have been saying that for nearly a week now. Since then, they've gone from the verge of tying the best playoff record ever to heading home for a desperation Game 6. Los Angeles will be waiting in anticipation Monday night, but not with the same certainty it had last week when the city's mayor spoke as if the Kings had already won.
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The coronation has turned into a battle for survival, which is what it was supposed to be about in the first place until the Kings flipped the script with a run so epic it turned hope into expectations.
"I'm pretty pissed off just like everybody else in that locker room," Williams said. "We've had two chances to close it out, hoist that Cup, accomplish our dream and we haven't quite gotten it. [But] as I said, we got two more chances and we're going back home."
Two chances to bring L.A. it's first-ever Stanley Cup and avoid becoming only the second team ever to blow a 3-0 series lead in the final. That's all that's on the line now. Win or lose, this series is heading toward an epic ending.
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