Kings wonder what might have been
L.A. was unprepared in defeat, convinced it would win series
LOS ANGELES -- Los Angeles Kings coach Terry Murray had prepared to make a different speech to his team Sunday night. It was to be more "Anything can happen in Game 7" than "We had a great season." He didn't have the latter script written and was still at a loss for words after the Kings' 4-2 loss to the Vancouver Canucks in their Western Conference quarterfinal series eliminated L.A. in its first postseason trip since 2002.
Standing with his hands in his pockets, he was still shaking his head at the reality of the result and the end of the Kings' season, which he had optimistically believed would last until June.
"I still feel we should have won this game in my own mind," Murray said. "It's hard. I thought we played well enough and I really thought we deserved it at the end of the night even though I'm standing here after a loss. I thought we'd be going back for a Game 7."
There will be no Game 7 for the Kings, and Murray was forced to ad-lib his way through telling his young players how much invaluable experience they had gained during a grueling six-game series with the Canucks, which the Kings had lead 2-1 after three games.
The turning point in the series occurred in Game 4 when Kings forward Alexander Frolov had a breakaway opportunity on Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo, who made a sprawling save to deny Frolov and keep the Canucks alive. A goal would have given the Kings a 4-2 third-period lead, which would have all but sealed the game and given the Kings a 3-1 series lead. But after never surrendering a third-period lead at home this season (they had been 29-0-2 when leading after two periods) the Kings gave up two straight third-period leads at home to the Canucks and were left to wonder what might have been.
"That's a tough series to swallow," said Kings left wing Ryan Smyth. "I think we learned a lot. We had our chances throughout the series to win but we gave them key momentum plays throughout the series. That's a tough thing to. It's a good lesson for us all. It's some of the guys first time in the playoffs and now we're all experienced. We learned a lot as a group and you never know what could happen."
Smyth was actually part of the momentum-changing play in Game 6 when his point-blank shot midway through the second period was stopped by Luongo, who made the most spectacular save of the playoffs. Luongo rolled to the ice and made an unbelievable glove stop above his body on Smyth's shot, which had seemed destined to hit the back of the net. It didn't, and soon after a re-energized Canucks team that was getting outshot 23-9 at the time tied the game 1-1 on Steve Bernier's power-play goal.
"It would have been 2-0," Smyth said. "That one hurt, because he was down and obviously he threw his glove up. Obviously I think he's a great goaltender."
The turning point for Luongo seemed to come after Game 3, in which he was pulled after giving up four goals in the Kings' 5-3 win. Since then the Canadian Olympian made one improbable save after another for Vancouver.
Aside from Luongo's improvement, the Canucks were able to finally figure out the Kings' power play, which had scored six consecutive times with a man advantage to propel them to back-to-back wins. Once the Kings' power-play streak was snapped, however, they were able to score on only one of their next 13 tries. That cold streak ended up being the difference in the series as the Canucks outscored the Kings 17-8 over the last three games.
"After the third game we said if we can get our PK going we should be fine," said Canucks center Henrik Sedin. "Because 5-on-5 I thought we were the better team but their power play was so good they could play tight 5-on-5 and know they are going to score 2-3 goals on the power play, which is huge for the confidence of a team. We felt even if we could get back to average on the PK we'd be fine."
Not only was their penalty kill better than average at the end of the series but Henrik and Daniel Sedin, joined by fellow Swede Mikael Samuelsson on the top line, played like the most dangerous line in the league. Daniel Sedin's fourth goal of the series was the game winner Sunday, and he and Henrik combined for 18 points in the series. Samuelsson scored seven goals in his first series in Vancouver after spending the previous four seasons with the Detroit Red Wings.
As well as the playoff-tested Canucks played, many players in Vancouver's locker room continued to talk about the poise of the young Kings team after the game. The Kings came into the series as the youngest team in the league with half their roster never having played in a single postseason game. Most of the Canucks feel that, after L.A.'s eight-year drought, it will be the first of many.
"I was really impressed by L.A.," said Henrik Sedin, who won the Art Ross Trophy as the league's leading scorer this season. "They got a young team but they never got frustrated. They kept playing the same way all through the six games. They got a great team and if they can stay together they're going to be an unbelievable team for a lot of years. I was impressed with the way they dealt with the pressure and the way they dealt with momentum changes in the series.
"They had a ton of guys who had never been in this situation before and they never said a word about the referees, never said a word about things that went on the ice. I was really impressed by that and it shows a lot about their team. They're going to be very good but at the end of the day we've been through that and we learned from that."
As tough as it was to see the silver lining in one of the best seasons in Kings franchise history, most of the players understand they have a young core coming back for the next few years and they will only learn from the experience of playing in the playoffs.
Players like captain Dustin Brown, forward Anze Kopitar, defenseman Jack Johnson, defenseman Drew Doughty, forward Wayne Simmonds, forward Alexander Frolov, and goaltender Jonathan Quick who had never played in a playoff game before can now go into next season knowing exactly what it takes to get to and win in the postseason.
"It's part of the process," said Brown, who gathered the team for players-only workouts last summer and plans to do the same this offseason. "A lot of the guys haven't been in this situation before and it's one of those things where you have to learn before you know how to win."
While Kings general manager Dean Lombardi may be looking to improve the roster in the offseason through the draft and free agency, Murray said he would do his best to keep this team intact after the way the Kings played on the ice and bonded off it this season. The only thing they were missing was experience, and after getting that out of the way he wants to see what they can do next year without any excuses.
"I'm not throwing anyone of our guys out of this group," Murray said. "I really like their attitude. We have a solid group of guys in that locker room; I want all of them back. I love this group of guys. There are no positions available. If anybody is going to make it, it's going to have to be earned the right way by playing the game hard and playing Los Angeles Kings style of hockey."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.