Twenty-seven teams had already exited the postseason when it finally came to an end for the Los Angeles Kings Saturday night. The Kings were the most resilient of the recent Stanley Cup champions, making it all the way back to the conference final and then giving the Chicago Blackhawks all they could handle in the deciding game. They fought back from an early two-goal deficit; fought back again to tie the game in the final 10 seconds of regulation; and were by far the better team through the first overtime period.
Alas, it was not be. Eventually, an error by defenceman Slava Voynov, one of the team's key players in the postseason, led to the breakdown that led to Patrick Kane's winning goal and that was it for the defending champions, a 4-3 double-overtime loss that ended their reign at one year.
By any measure, however, it was a credible run for the Kings. Two of the last three Stanley Cup champions, prior to Los Angeles have lost in the opening round the following year. L.A. had to deal with the effects of the Stanley Cup hangover, though the lockout probably helped there. If the season had begun in October, goaltender Jonathan Quick wouldn't have been available because of off-season back surgery.
As it was, they muddled along without two top-six defencemen, Willie Mitchell and Matt Greene, for most of the season. Anze Kopitar was hobbled by a knee injury suffered in the final game of the lockout in Sweden. Three key members of the team – captain Dustin Brown, defenceman Drew Doughty, forward Justin Williams – were playing with injuries, Brown a torn posterior cruciate knee ligament, Doughty an ankle problem, Williams a partially separated shoulder. They were running on fumes by the end, but pushing hard anyways.
The fatalism didn't set in until after it was over.
"Obviously, we're disappointed to lose to Chicago, but we're certainly not disappointed in how we played," said Kings head coach Darryl Sutter. "If you look at our season, other than not getting home ice [advantage for the playoffs], we've done everything we've wanted."
But there was genuine disappointment in coming so close again.
"We're not in a profession of what-ifs," said Williams. "We're in a profession of results. … I don't take much solace in losing. Yeah, we were one of the final four, but that wasn't our goal when we set out to start the season. We're not able to defend what we did last year, and that's the frustrating thing."
The Kings were 8-1 at home and 1-8 on the road, a development centre Jarret Stoll referenced: "We just didn't have it against these guys. We just couldn't find a way to win a road game. … You can't be happy with losing. You never are, whether it's Western Conference final or Stanley Cup final or not even making the playoffs. It's that same empty feeling."
Changes, naturally, will be forthcoming. Forward Dustin Penner and defenceman Rob Scuderi are both unrestricted free agents, and may not return. Penner's spot on the roster will likely go to rookie Tyler Toffoli, who had some good moments after getting called up from the minors. The Kings' decision to sign Robyn Regehr to a contract extension in the playoffs may mitigate against Scuderi's return. Mitchell, meanwhile, has a year remaining on his contract, but it is not clear whether he'll ever get back. And goaltender Jonathan Bernier is a restricted free agent and there is speculation that finally, the Kings will trade him this off-season so he can get a chance to land a No. 1 spot elsewhere.
As much as the loss stung, Scuderi pointed out that he's played on teams previously where defeats "left an even bigger hole because you feel like you had regrets about maybe what you could've left out there as a team, maybe as a group and possibly as individuals.
"As much as it is a disappointing feeling to lose here tonight and to not have a chance to repeat, I'm not ashamed of our group and the effort that we put forward."