LOS ANGELES -- Before the Los Angeles Kings could open the chapter on this season, they had to properly close the chapter on last season.
It was a long overdue process many on the team weren’t sure when or even if they would ever get the chance to experience.
Sure, the NHL lockout would have ended at some point in time and the Kings would have eventually raised their Stanley Cup banner and handed out their championship rings soon after. But if the lockout had canceled this season and if the new salary cap were as low as NHL owners wanted it to be, this day wouldn’t have been the same.
It would have been like having a reunion with many of the invitees spread out all over the country and unable to attend.
There is no way the Kings would have been able to bring back their entire Stanley Cup-winning roster intact if the lockout stretched into next season and the salary cap was as low as $60 million. It would have tarnished a moment Kings fans have dreamed about for 45 years and Kings players and coaches spent three magical months making a reality.
Before the Kings traded forward Kevin Westgarth, who didn’t play in the playoffs and hasn’t played since February, on the eve of training camp, they were going to be the first Stanley Cup-winning team in recent memory to return everyone on its roster the following season. Even after the Westgarth deal, they are the first team since the 1983 New York Islanders to have all but one player return from the previous championship season. That Islanders squad returned to the Stanley Cup finals that season, but lost to the Edmonton Oilers. No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champion since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.
The Kings did little to differentiate themselves from recent Stanley Cup winners by losing their season opener after raising their championship banner. Boston and Chicago lost the past two banner-raising games in the NHL, and both lost in the conference quarterfinals the following season.
It’s too early to judge the Kings after their 5-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday afternoon. They were down 3-0 before the end of the first period and behind 4-0 as soon as the second period started. By the time Rob Scuderi scored the Kings’ first goal of the season, many fans had already left the building.
“You’re going to make some physical mistakes in these first seven or eight games,” Scuderi said. “That’s just the way it is. I expect physical mistakes, but we have to be prepared mentally to play the game and at least give ourselves a chance. If you’re in the right position, which is a mental thing, then you give yourself a chance to win a physical battle.”
Blackhawks forward Patrick Kane remembers how hard it was to win after winning the Stanley Cup and having a target placed on his and the team’s back every night. Suddenly, every game felt like a playoff game as teams positioned themselves for a signature win.
“Everyone is going to play their best game against the Cup champion,” Kane said. “That’s a game you want to prove yourself and make a statement. I think that’s what we were feeling tonight, and we had the opportunity to do that.”
Saturday’s game almost seemed like an afterthought for most of the fans in attendance. Many of them flooded L.A. Live across the street from Staples Center and the streets surrounding the arena three hours before the game. There was a beer garden, dance competitions, women passing out beads and outdoor ice-skating in 80-degree weather.
It was almost a continuation of the Stanley Cup Finals, and it felt that way for Kings coach Daryl Sutter. He said it didn’t feel like Game 6, when the Kings won the Cup, but more like Game 4, when Kings fans were celebrating a sweep and a Cup win before it ever happened. The Kings would end up losing that game and the next one before finally closing out the New Jersey Devils and winning the Stanley Cup.
“I kind of looked at tonight as similar to before we played Game 4 last year of the finals,” Sutter said. “You have to focus on what you do and focus on yourself and not what everyone wants you to do.”
As the Kings' players exited the locker room Saturday wearing suits and holding their championship rings inside of large, white Tiffany & Co. boxes, they weren’t making too much of their first loss of the season. It wasn’t exactly the type of game they expect to see very often from their Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goalie. Jonathan Quick gave up five goals on Saturday, which is something he did only once last season.
“You have to get used to getting knocked down and getting back up,” Quick said. “Most of our guys just wanted to play hockey today We had a chance at 96 points, and now all we have a chance at is 94 As the ceremony was going on, most of our guys were thinking about the game, but obviously you’re going to take a moment and it’s a special moment for the team and fans, but everyone knew what we were here to do and try to win a hockey game, and, unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that.”
Kings captain Dustin Brown certainly took a moment to appreciate holding the Stanley Cup trophy on the ice one more time and helping raise the championship banner into the rafters of Staples Center, but is happy the Kings can finally move on and focus on repeating history rather than reliving it.
“It was a really good moment for the organization and the players and fans,” Brown said. “But I think, as a group, we’re ready after raising the banner and everything we did last year to close that chapter and write a new chapter here.”