During the six-month regular season, it had essentially been a given. If the Kings led a game going into the third period, they would not lose. It could be etched in stone.
Thirty-one times, the Kings led after two periods. Twenty-nine times, they won. Twice, they lost in shootouts and got a point in the standings. Never once did they go into the third period with a lead and leave the ice, after regulation, on the losing end.
Until the playoffs.
The Kings’ strength became a weakness at the worst possible time. Sunday night, for the second time in their last three games, the Kings lost a third-period lead at home, and this time it cost them the series, as the Vancouver Canucks scored three third-period goals to record a 4-2 victory and end the Kings’ season in Game 6 of this first-round series.
Looking to force a decisive Game 7 on Tuesday, the Kings got goals from Alexander Frolov and Drew Doughty and took a 2-1 lead into the third period, but Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa, Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows scored third-period goals.
In Wednesday’s Game 4, the Kings led 3-2 after two periods but lost 6-4, a huge momentum turn that allowed the Canucks to tie the series 2-2. The Kings were then defeated 7-2 in Game 5 on Friday to be put on the brink of elimination.
``The team played great,’’ said Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, who made 18 saves on 21 shots. ``They battled hard all series. That's a very good Canucks team over there. We played well for six games. Obviously it's not the outcome we wanted, but we've got some time to reflect on the season and start getting ready for next year.
``No matter how it happens, your season ends and it does not feel good. It is something that all year long we were great at, closing out those third periods. It is a shame we let two of them get away from us.’’
After the game, and the Canucks’ 4-2 series win, the standing-room-only crowd of 18,287 at STAPLES Center gave the Kings a strong ovation, and rightfully so.
This team, with the youngest group of core players in the NHL, was widely expected to miss the playoffs. Few expected that they would reach the 100-point plateau for only the third time in franchise history and contend for home-ice advantage in the first round.
Second-year, 20-year-old defenseman Drew Doughy earned a Norris Trophy nomination. Anze Kopitar received recognition as a world-class center. Jonathan Quick set franchise goalie records for wins and games played. And that’s just to name three.
But after Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin broke a 2-2 tie with a goal with 2:03 remaining – after Sedin’s pass led to the tying goal -- and Burrows scored into an empty net with 1:07 remaining, Doughty spoke for all the Kings, without saying a word, when he laid stomach-down on the ice, in the corner, while the Canucks celebrated the clinching goal.
So close, so much progress, yet still disappointment.
``I felt we played good tonight,’’ Doughty said. ``We outshot them [32-22] and I thought we played good all around. Obviously they got that goal late. … Overall, it was a pretty good game for us, and I thought we had a good series. It's unfortunate, obviously, that we're done now, but overall I think we're pretty happy with our season.’’
Among the Kings’ top players, only Frolov will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, so the Kings will have a chance to learn and grow.
This playoff experience was the first one for 13 players on the roster, and captain Dustin Brown said it’s up to the Kings to learn from this experience and come back stronger next season, when expectations will certainly be higher.
``Sometimes you have to lose before you can win,’’ Brown said. ``There's a lot to learn from this series. We had the momentum, and it can switch just like that. That's what we can learn from this whole series. It's a huge learning experience. We lost, but we had games in our grasp, and that's something that, this time of year, it's disappointing.
``From a team standpoint, I'm proud of the group and how we played. A lot of guys, this was their first time for this, and it's a whole different level from the regular season. This is a learning experience for everyone. You've got guys who have been through it, but they can't sit there and tell you about it. You have to experience it, and that's part of the process.’’
Kings coach Terry Murray, who in his second season guided the Kings to the playoffs for the first time since 2002, said he believes in the idea that a young team has to lose in order to learn how to win in the playoffs.
``I guess I'm from the older school in that sense, because I do believe in that,’’ Murray said. ``Going back a few years, there were some tremendous hockey teams that kept on winning. They didn't share it with anybody else, talking about the Oilers I guess, in particular, most recently, and Detroit. They don't seem to want to relinquish that championship. You do have to go through adversity. There are difficult times and you've got to take a lot away from a series like this.
``Again, the one thing I did say to the team, these young guys in particular, is that this is a wonderful experience for your future. Again, come back to it, revisit it in a few days and think about what you just went through, to be able to draw some positives and some things that are going to benefit you as an athlete, as a player, in the future. I still feel we should have won this game, in my own mind. 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 to Game 7.’’
In victory, Canucks forward Ryan Kesler had strong praise for his opponents.
``That’s a very good hockey club,’’ Kesler said. ``They’re coached well. They have a lot of young talent. They had a good team. For a lot of guys in that room, at least the core, it was their first time. It’s a learning lesson for them. They’re going to be a good team for a lot of years.''
Each team made one lineup change Sunday, as the Kings replaced injured winger Rich Clune with Scott Parse and Vancouver put in Tanner Glass in place of Michael Grabner.
In goal, it remained the Kings' Quick against the Canucks' Roberto Luongo, who made 30 saves in his strongest effort of the six-game series.
The Kings got off to a torrid start, even though they had to kill two penalties in the first eight minutes, and Alexander Frolov got the scoring stared with his first career playoff goal with 9:52 remaining in the first period. Frolov, being defended by Henrik Sedin behind the net, swept in front and scored on a wraparound to beat Luongo.
A momentum-turning play took place 6:54 into the second period. Kings winger Ryan Smyth had the puck in front of the net, with Luongo sprawling on the ice, but Luongo stabbed at the puck with his glove and made the save.
``I was scrambling to get back to my post,’’ Luongo said, ``and as I did I don’t know if it was Simmonds who passed it out to Smythy, I was just laying down pretty much and I saw Smythy winding up. Luckily, he doesn’t have a Howitzer. So I was able to snare it.’’
Not surprisingly, Smyth didn’t find the save quite as entertaining.
``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.''
Vancouver then tied the game 8:38 into the second period, just nine seconds into a power play. Alex Edler took a point shot and Bernier, stationed in front the net, tipped the shot that got through Quick to make it 1-1.
The Kings took the lead back with 4:03 left in the second period, three seconds after the end of a power play. The Kings put pressure on Luongo, and Anze Kopitar passed the puck left, from the slot, to Doughty at the top of the left circle. Doughty shot and scored, off a deflection, to give the Kings a 2-1 lead.
The Canucks tied the game 1:57 into the third period. Bieksa came to the net, took a centering pass from Daniel Sedin and shot from close range. Quick made the stop, but the puck trickled through his pads and over the line.
``I think it was Daniel Sedin who went behind the net,’’ Quick said, ``so I went down to the post, because they've been doing that wrap play in the series, where they just walk the net and jam it. I was looking down for the puck and he passed it out, and Bieksa kind of one-timed it. As I was coming out to get on that angle, it just squirted through my legs and I wasn't able to close up in time.''
Vancouver took its first lead of the game with 2:03 remaining in the third period. Mikael Samuelsson's shot from the slot was blocked, but Sedin picked up the puck and scored on a wrist shot from the left circle.
``I think they had a 4-on-3 kind of look, and they found that late D man,’’ Doughty said. ``He ripped a shot and our forwards made a good block. It just kind of went right on Sedin's stick there and it went in.''
Burrows added an empty-net goal with 1:07 remaining.
1 - 0 LAK
1 - 1 Tie
2 - 1 LAK
2 - 2 Tie
3 - 2 VAN
4 - 2 VAN
Interference on goalkeeper