LOS ANGELES – There was a time when hockey mattered in Los Angeles, when the Kings weren't just forced down the throat of a town more familiar with Stanley Kubrick than the Stanley Cup. It started when 99 arrived on the scene in 1988, lasted 'til '93, then faded to black.
They were the wonder years, and they were cool while they lasted, when celebs showed up because they wanted to get a glimpse of Wayne Gretzky because, you know, getting a glimpse of Gretzky was the thing to do at the time. But when he left, so did the star factor and, well, that was that.
In the 18 years since, the Kings had won exactly one playoff series and in the process been relegated once again to the back burner, behind the Lakers and Dodgers and Angels and, yes, even the dreadful Clippers in terms of teams Los Angelinos care about.
L.A.'s never been a hockey town, not even when Gretzky was here, and it never will be. But over the last few weeks, an underdog group has done a bang up job of making the city perk up and take notice. And now, with these Kings having already dispatched the No. 1 overall seed in the playoffs and just one win away from advancing to the Western Conference finals, the thought begins to creep in: Can they really bring the Stanley Cup to L.A.?
"I believe so," defenseman Drew Doughty said after the Kings beat the St. Louis Blues 4-2 on Thursday to take a commanding 3-0 lead in this best of seven Western Conference semifinal series. "I don't want to make any predictions or anything like that, but if we start to play a full 60 minutes every single game, we have a pretty good chance.
"I don't think teams like playing us a whole lot," he continued. "Not only do we have a lot of skill at both ends of the ice, but we have a lot of grit."
The skill being the likes of Doughty, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, who could handle a puck in a phone booth, the grit coming from Dwight King, a third-liner who scored the goal that could end up being the difference in this series with the Blues.
With just over a minute gone in the second period and the Kings holding onto a 1-0 lead, Chris Stewart evened things up with his first goal of the playoffs. It appeared to be a momentum shifter in the game, if not the series. To that point, the Kings had dominated Game 3, yet they found themselves in a 1-1 tie, and now St. Louis finally had something to build on after dropping the first two games of the series at home.
Only, that momentum lasted just 40 seconds before King stole a loose puck, roared into the St. Louis zone and wristed a shot by Brian Elliott. A five-goal scorer during the regular season beat the NHL's best goalie during the regular season, and with that the game and likely the series was effectively over.
Mike Richards added another goal in the second, and a few minutes after St. Louis made it 3-2 in the third, Doughty responded with his first goal of the postseason.
"The one thing that's stood out to me in this playoffs so far is that we've had different guys step up at different times," said Brown, noting that the four goals came from four different players. "We're not going to be a team that's winning games with just one line scoring. We gotta have contributions from everyone."
If you're looking for an explanation as to how the No. 8 seed breezed through the top-seeded Canucks 4-1 in the first round, have dominated the second-seeded Blues in the second round and have outscored their opponents 24-13 en route to winning seven of eight playoff games, it's here. At one end, they've gotten goals from 14 different players, at the other Jonathan Quick has been the steadiest presence of any net minder in the playoffs.
They don't have a superstar the way the Penguins do in Sidney Crosby or the Capitals do in Alexander Ovechkin , which explains why Eric Stonestreet topped the short list of celebrities in attendance Thursday night. What they do have is an all-for-one mentality that, while a bit cheesy, is what's brought them to this point – the furthest they've been in the playoffs since 1993, when "The Great One" led them to the Stanley Cup Finals only to lose in five games.
It's been awhile – five uniform changes, six head coaches and a new building – but hockey is finally relevant again in Los Angeles, and come June it may just be the only show left in town.
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