LOS ANGELES – Dustin Brown skated over to Gary Bettman and practically snatched the 35-pound silver trophy out of the NHL commissioner’s hands, thrusting it skyward while a packed arena roared.
Although the electric moment had a familiar feel to the Los Angeles Kings and their fans, all this success is still a bit surreal to anybody who loves this long-struggling club.
After 45 years spent mostly as a hockey punch line and a Los Angeles afterthought, the Kings have won the Stanley Cup twice in the last three seasons.
And after eliminating the New York Rangers in five games at the close of an epic two-month playoff run, the Kings are unshakably confident in themselves, in each other – and in the idea they could relive this defining moment a few more times.
“We have a team that simply will not be denied,” playoff MVP Justin Williams said.
Alec Martinez scored 14:43 into the second overtime, and the Kings finished the longest playoff run and the longest game in club history with a 3-2 victory over the Rangers on Friday night.
“I don’t know if we’re part of (a dynasty) yet, but hopefully we’re on our way to that,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “I believe this group could be at that point, but it’s going to take a lot of work.”
Work doesn’t scare the Kings, as evidenced by their 26-game odyssey through this spring. They first faced elimination more than seven weeks ago when they lost their first three postseason games to San Jose, but followed up that landmark comeback with two more seven-game series victories.
The Kings stayed on a tightrope in the Cup finals, winning the first two games in overtime before missing their first chance to finish the series in Game 4 Wednesday. Back home in front of their grateful fans, Los Angeles rallied from a third-period deficit and played more than 94 minutes of nail-biting hockey in Game 5.
After innumerable chances for both teams in two nail-biting extra periods, Martinez started the final rush with a pass to Kyle Clifford, who dropped it to Tyler Toffoli for a shot. The rebound went straight to Martinez, and the depth defenseman buried it for his fifth goal of the postseason.
“After it went in, I think I blacked out,” Martinez said.
Martinez is becoming a late-game playoff legend after also scoring in overtime in Game 7 against Chicago in the Western Conference finals, but the Kings all see themselves as part of something bigger. After finishing third in the Pacific Division and falling behind 3-0 to San Jose in the first round, coach Darryl Sutter’s Kings passed every test with togetherness and level heads.
“The playoffs are a very emotional time, and with all the highs and lows we’ve gone through, obviously it’s a really revved-up environment,” said Martinez, whose goal was his only point of the finals. “So it’s important to stay at an even keel, and this is a testament to the character and leadership in our room. I couldn’t be happier for these guys.”
Marian Gaborik scored a tying power-play goal in the third period, and Jonathan Quick made 28 saves in his second Cup-clinching victory. Williams, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, scored an early goal as Los Angeles added a second title to its 2012 championship, the first in the franchise’s 47-year history.
“What we went through in 2012 (versus) what we went through this year, huge difference,” said Williams, a three-time Cup champion after scoring 25 points. “We really earned it.”
After his skate with the Cup, Brown swiftly handed it to Robyn Regehr, the veteran defenseman and first-time NHL champion who never got back in the Kings’ lineup after his May 3 knee injury. Regehr handed off to Gaborik, the goal-scoring dynamo and late-season acquisition who led the playoffs with 14 goals to win the first title of his 13-season NHL career.
The trophy soon went to Doughty and Jeff Carter, who became the seventh and eighth players to win an Olympic gold medal and the Stanley Cup in the same year. Leading scorer Anze Kopitar raised it for the second time, while promising youngsters Toffoli and Tanner Pearson got their first turns.
Chris Kreider scored a power-play goal and Brian Boyle added a tiebreaking short-handed goal late in the second period for the Rangers, who showed no nerves while facing elimination for the sixth time this spring.
Both teams had tantalizing chances in overtime, from shots off posts by Ryan McDonagh and Toffoli to Kreider’s failed breakaway late in the first OT. Rick Nash had an open net in the second OT, but Slava Voynov deflected the shot just high with the shaft of his stick.
Henrik Lundqvist stopped 48 shots in another standout performance for the Eastern Conference champions, but the Rangers repeatedly came up one goal short against the Kings despite their goalie’s brilliance.
“You go into this hoping that you don’t regret anything,” Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. “We put it out there. We gave our best shot, best effort. Three games here all went to OT. What can I say?”
The Rangers were one elimination win away from matching the Kings, who won six elimination games in the first three rounds. The defending champion Blackhawks forced Los Angeles to a seventh game in Chicago, but Martinez’s deflected overtime goal sent the Kings into the franchise’s third Stanley Cup finals.
“I think it takes a lot of effort and will,” Sutter said. “It showed up again tonight. I mean, just over and over and over. We had to switch guys around tonight. Just started gutting it out. I told some of the players, ‘Should we win the Stanley Cup this year in a different way, it just tells you we actually got better.”’
Indeed, Los Angeles’ 2012 title run was defined by that raw, eighth-seeded team’s improbable dominance, but the second crown was all about resilience.
After their 21-game escape from the tough Western Conference, the Kings got consecutive OT wins to open the finals on goals by Williams and Brown.
Game 5 was the Kings’ 26th playoff game of the spring, matching the NHL record for the longest postseason run. Los Angeles has played 64 playoff games over the last three years, setting another league record.
“This time around, we didn’t have time to think about, ‘My God, we’ve been playing elimination games so many times,”’ defenseman Willie Mitchell said. “I guess that’s probably the difference, that we were on the brink so many times playing really good teams. So that’s pretty cool.”
And Game 5 nearly got away, too. Boyle put the Rangers ahead with a stunner: After Carl Hagelin got the puck away from Voynov, he skated around Doughty and wired a pinpoint shot into the far top corner for just his third goal of the postseason.
But the Kings showed the same determination that has characterized their entire spring run, and they finally equalized with Mats Zuccarello in the box.
Doughty’s long shot hit Lundqvist in the chest and dropped in front of him before Gaborik alertly poked it between his legs for the Slovak star’s latest goal in a spectacular postseason with his new club.
That’s when the nail-biting hockey started — and roughly 46 minutes later, Martinez drove the final nail into a masterpiece.