LOS ANGELES – It was a true coronation as the Los Angeles Kings captured the first Stanley Cup in team history on June 11, defeating the New Jersey Devils 6-1 in Game Six at the Staples Center.
The victory ended a 45-year wait for fans of Los Angeles, which entered the NHL in the league’s 1967 expansion to 12 teams. The club's only previous trip to the final came in 1993, where a roster featuring Wayne Gretzky, Luc Robitaille, and Jari Kurri fell in five games to the Montreal Canadiens.
“The Great One” is credited with popularizing hockey in the American Sunbelt, and L.A. now becomes the latest in a string of warm-weather NHL clubs to capture a title. Others include the Dallas Stars (1999), Tampa Bay Lightning (2004), Carolina Hurricanes (2006), and Anaheim Ducks (2007).
“It feels amazing,” said L.A. forward Brad Richardson. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
The turning point in Game Six came when New Jersey forward Steve Bernier took a five-minute major and game misconduct for hitting L.A. defenceman Rob Scuderi from behind halfway through the first period. The Kings scored three times on the ensuing man advantage, with Jeff Carter potting the eventual winner – his first of two on the night – at 11:03.
Carter, Canada’s all-time leader in IIHF World Junior goals (12, tied with Eric Lindros and John Tavares), finished the Cup final with four markers, including the OT winner in Game Two.
In a storied locale known for palm trees, beaches, Hollywood, and Disneyland, this was another example of dreams coming true in Los Angeles.
“This city has dreamed [of this] for 45 years,” said Kings captain Dustin Brown, who became the second U.S.-born captain to hoist the Cup. Derian Hatcher of the Dallas Stars preceded him in 1999.
“It’s what you dream of as a four- or five-year-old growing up in Canada,” added Dustin Penner, who became the first player to win the Cup with two California clubs. “You’re born with skates.”
Despite entering the post-season as the eighth seed in the Western Conference, L.A. pulled off one of the more dominant Cup runs in recent history, with just four losses. They steamrolled the top three seeds – Vancouver, St. Louis, and Phoenix – and earned an impressive road record of 10 wins and two losses.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” said Drew Doughty, the top-scoring defenceman in the playoffs (4-12-16). “We believed so much in ourselves, and we did a great job.”
Individually, it was a remarkable spring for Anze Kopitar. The powerful 24-year-old centre became the first Slovene ever to win the Stanley Cup and he was tied with Brown for the lead in playoff scoring (8-12-20). Kopitar tallied the dazzling overtime winner on a breakaway in Game One, and potted two goals and three assists in total during the final.
Few could have imagined Kopitar, a native of the small steel town of Jesenice, would make it this far. After all, Slovenia, a nation of 2 million, currently has only 943 registered players. And Kopitar’s one of just two Slovenes in the NHL, along with Detroit prospect Jan Mursak. He honed his skills in Europe before coming over, logging two seasons with Sweden’s Södertälje SK and suiting up repeatedly for his national team in IIHF play.
"I was fortunate enough to have my family here," said Kopitar. "[Winning the Cup] in front of them and being able to share it with them, it's unbelievable."
L.A. goalie Jonathan Quick, who was named the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, was superb, demonstrating lightning reflexes and often completely taking away the bottom of the net. The 26-year-old Vezina Trophy candidate became the third American all-time to capture playoff MVP honours, following in the footsteps of Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers (1994) and Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins (2011).
Quick's prowess also bodes well for the 2014 American Olympic team, which should have an abundance of talented keepers to choose from. The options might also include 2010 starter Ryan Miller, 2012 World Championship goalie Jimmy Howard, budding Vancouver star Cory Schneider, and maybe Thomas, depending on what happens after the 38-year-old Boston netminder's self-imposed hiatus for 2012-13.
Meanwhile, Game Six was a crushing disappointment for the older, wearier, and smaller Devils, who were hoping to win their fourth Cup in franchise history. They triumphed in 1995, 2000, and 2003. New Jersey’s only previous final loss came in 2001, where they fell in seven games to the Colorado Avalanche.
But after fighting back from a 3-0 series deficit to make it 3-2, New Jersey just had nothing left in the tank in the end.
Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, who progressed beyond the first round for the first time in his NHL career, totaled 19 points, but was limited to one empty-net goal in the final. Kovalchuk, reportedly playing with a herniated disc in his back, couldn’t recapture his heroics with the Russian national teams that won World Championship gold in 2008 and 2009.
New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur was excellent for most of the series, and not just for a man who turned 40 on May 6. But the NHL’s all-time leader in wins, shutouts, and games played, whose resume includes two Olympic gold medals, admitted at one point Quick was “a little more perfect than him” in this series.
"This was a great opportunity for us, and we failed to win it," said Brodeur. "But this was a tremendous playoff run. We're definitely disappointed, but we're proud of what we accomplished."
No new members were added to the IIHF’s Triple Gold Club, reserved for players who have won Olympic gold, World Championship gold, and the Stanley Cup. Several Canadian Kings, though, are now just one step away. Mike Richards and Drew Doughty both captured Olympic gold in 2010, and Simon Gagné did so in 2002 while Willie Mitchell won Worlds gold with Canada in 2004. Justin Williams is just waiting for Olympic gold after winning Worlds gold in 2004 and 2007 and Stanley Cups in 2006 and 2012.