We Went There: The Fall of the Blackhawks, the Return of the Kings

The last time I saw Luc Robitaille in person, he was standing behind a bar inside Staples Center tossing out victory cigars. This was two years ago, the Los Angeles Kings had just won the franchise’s first Stanley Cup, and Robitaille — a time-and-again Kings star who is now the team’s president of business operations — had a dopey grin spread wide across his face.

His celebratory expression was on display once again last night, sans cigars, in the United Center visitors’ locker room. Capping off a seesawing conference final between Los Angeles and Chicago, the Kings scored in overtime to defeat the Blackhawks, 5-4, and advance to their second Stanley Cup final in three years. Oversize gray “Western Conference Champion” T-shirts hung from various stalls as Robitaille bounced around, nearly feral in his excitement, congratulating any and every Kings player to cross his path. Compared with him, the often hopped-up Drew Doughty, sitting a few feet away after playing just shy of 30 minutes in Game 7, appeared almost placid. (To be fair, he’d already had a boisterous personal celebration of his own on the bench.)

“Ya know, last year, it was — I felt like their team was a little bit better,” Doughty said of the Blackhawks, who eliminated his Kings in a businesslike five games in 2013. “This year we were the better team.”

For just about everyone but the poor goalie coaches, the Western Conference finals were a classic. The possibilities were infinite, and no lead was ever safe. The series often felt like one of those endless tennis matches that ultimately gets postponed for darkness — all volleys and lunges and momentum changes punctuated by gasps and pumped fists. You got the sense that if the playoff format were best of nine or 11 or more, the two teams would keep playing and scoring and brazenly subterfuging until someone finally turned off the lights and forced them to go home. It was telling that Kings coach Darryl Sutter identified his team’s best games of the series as Games 1, 5, and 6 — the three they lost.

One side boasted Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews; an undefeated record in all Games 5, 6, and 7 over the last two playoffs; a deep defensive corps; and Stanley Cups in 2010 and 2013. (No other franchise has won multiple Cups since the salary cap was instituted in 2005.) The other featured young DoughtyJustin Williams, and the almost unsolvable Anze Kopitar; a history-making string of Game 7 road playoff victories; and the most quietly compelling head coach in hockey. Oh yeah, and also that trophy from 2012 — which, captain Dustin Brown pointed out diplomatically, was won in part thanks to Chicago falling to Phoenix in the first round that year.

“You look across the hall, the reason they’ve done it is the way their team is built,” Brown said. “I think we’re built in a very similar manner, in the sense that we’ve had a group of guys that have been together. I can’t stress that enough.”

It was a direct acknowledgement of the very worthiness of their adversary. The only thing better than a burgeoning dynasty, after all, is two of ’em going repeatedly after each other.

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Before just about every game at the United Center, a guy named Sam Fels stands in front of Gate 3 and hawks copies of The Committed Indian, a funny and caustic homegrown publication that costs three bucks and is part Mad magazine, part game-day program. (One time during last season’s playoffs, Hawks fan Billy Corgan stopped by and picked one up; he has never returned, possibly because that issue happened to contain a joke at the expense of the Smashing Pumpkins.)

A two-page spread in the Game 7 issue laid out each team’s roster. “CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS” read the headline on one side, above player nicknames like “Bangkok Dangerous” (Johnny Oduya) and “Humpty Hump” (Patrick Kane). “CALIFORNIA STATE CHAMPS” said the other, a cheeky reference to the Kings’ road to the Western Conference finals, through the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim Ducks. Some people, after all, will just never trust Pacific hockey.

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“Within the past few years, we’ve tried to earn the respect of the league,” said Justin Williams, who scored a goal, added an assist, and set an NHL record with 14 career points in Game 7 play. “L.A. is not just a place to come and play a hockey game and work on your tan. It’s a tough loop in California right now to play. We want to put L.A. on the map, and put it significantly on the map with respect to hockey.”

If they hadn’t already done so in 2012, they certainly are now. Ten Kings scored points in Sunday’s win, as the team came back from deficits three times to tie a game that Chicago led 2-0 before the first period was even halfway through. Jeff Carter’s midair swat with less than four minutes to play in the first period was followed up a minute later by Williams’s goal to even the score at 2-2. Almost immediately Chicago struck back, with Jonathan Quick getting momentarily blinded by Patrick Sharp’s gaze and giving up an odd-bouncing stinker that gave Chicago renewed vigor.

Tyler Toffoli — whose nickname, Top Titty, is my favorite in the league — evened the score again midway through the second period, and again it was Sharp who countered. But 12:43 into the third, Kings trade deadline acquisition Marian Gaborik connected on a backhand and made it 4-4, and shortly afterward an earthquake could be felt back in Los Angeles. The city itself seemed to know what was coming. The final minutes didn’t have that usual “next goal wins” feeling, mostly because the series and the game had been so whiplashy that it felt like either team would probably immediately respond. Overtime was the only solution.

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In her book West With the Night, aviator and writer Beryl Markham ruminated on silence. “There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city,” she wrote. “There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt.”

There is also the silence that follows an overtime loss by a home team, and it is the sound of all three: emptiness, fear, and doubt. It somehow reverberates long after the game has ended. Alec Martinez’s game-winning goal would have been devastating for the crowd however it had entered the net, but the fluky suddenness of it was hard to stomach. Most fans immediately headed for the exits, some stuck around for a few more agonizing minutes to give a farewell cheer to their team, and at least one man’s voice cut through the oppressive lack of din: “Let’s Go Rangers!” he sang, more out of resignation than vengeance.

“People forget pretty quick about the team that came up short,” Toews said. “We never want to be that team. I guess at the end of the day you can learn from some of it. But right now I don’t think we’re willing to accept that or think about that yet.”

Given the strength of the Western Conference and the thrill of the Kings-Blackhawks series, many consider the Rangers to be dead meat. Just the question alone of who will be iced against Kopitar is likely giving Alain Vigneault fits. Still, the rush to declare the Kings victors may be a tad premature. Though the Stanley Cup final will likely be publicized as a goaltender’s duel between Henrik Lundqvist and Quick, that isn’t exactly the case. (Throughout the playoffs, Lundqvist has stopped 93.7 percent of shots at even strength; Quick’s rate is 91.2 percent, which would basically be replacement level over the length of a regular season.) The Rangers’ speed could put pressure on some of the Kings’ slower defensemen, and while the team lacks the flash of the Blackhawks’ forward corps, it has more-rounded depth. Plus, it’s always possible the Kings will simply be worn down by the sheer volume of “20th anniversary of 1994” tributes, and choose to surrender rather than hear the Matteau call one more time.

On the other hand, the Kings have benefited from some repeat history of their own. Twenty-one years ago, they won another seven-game conference final by a 5-4 score on the road, defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs to advance to the (ill-fated) 1993 Cup final. After the game, Kings broadcaster Jim Fox caught Robitaille, then 27 years old and the onetime captain of the team, in the cramped away locker room.

“I guess it doesn’t matter where you win this game?” Fox said, and Robitaille immediately interrupted him.

“Who cares? We’re in the final,” he said, and then repeated himself, so giddy he was practically gulping. “Who cares?! We’re in the damn finals!!!!”

Nothing ends here, of course, but it’s one hell of a start.

Filed Under: NHL, Chicago Blackhawks, Los Angeles Kings, Hockey, Stanley Cup Playoffs

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes