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Ice hockey is a game of passion and it is a game of blood. But what makes the sport precious and different is that it is a game of courage and a game of persistence. And it is a high-speed game contested by athletes who fearlessly turn their bodies into rockets while whacking at opponents with sticks. All the while sliding around and slipping on ice skates.
For Los Angeles, hockey is still a cult sport. The autumn/winter/spring sport for the denizens of Los Angeles is pro basketball. But the beloved Lakers, with their championship history, and the Clippers, with their chastened owner’s baggage, had their NBA seasons ended early.
And the Stanley Cup playoffs had barely begun when the Kings — the championship team of two years ago — appeared doomed and nearly dead. They had been beaten in the first three games of the first round by the San Jose Sharks. The Kings were on the perilous edge of elimination — and back then, in April, few sports addicts in L.A. could really give a damn.
“Hell, we got thrown under the bus by everybody on earth seven weeks ago,” Darryl Sutter, who coaches these hockey desperados, said in a postgame interview on NBC Sports the other night.
That must be rural Alberta farm talk for “time to start planting the crops.”
Pro football is played mostly by elephants and cougars and an occasional lion. Baseball is a game that dawdles, and the performers do not appear particularly passionate or courageous. Pro basketball is a matchup between teams of extremely skilled giants, with a decent flow to it until the final minutes when it turns into a series of timeouts and strategically deliberate fouls.
Hockey — particularly in the playoffs — is a game of high theater. Drama, suspense, chaos and surprise finishes by surprise performers.
In April, with the playoffs just started, the Kings were not only under the bus — the bus was teetering at the edge of a precipice. To continue the imagery, they were bloodied and beaten black and blue.
They emerged — for the first time — by licking the Sharks in the next four games. They won Game 7 in San Jose — on the road. They had established a precarious pattern.
Next they played the Anaheim Ducks, their neighborhood rivals. The Kings rallied to win that series, in another Game 7. They won the game in Anaheim. Again surviving on the road.
Next they played the Chicago Blackhawks, in the NHL’s Western Conference finals. Again the series went to Game 7. In Chicago. On the road again. And quickly, the Blackhawks took command. They led the Kings 2-0 in the first period. Another pattern had been established.
The Kings tied it in the third period, 4-4.
This game went into double overtime.
And again the Kings won, on a shot by Alec Martinez.
Alec Martinez just happens to be a young defenseman from Rochester Hills. In Michigan, suburban Detroit. He was not Darryl Sutter’s favorite hockey player, according to Los Angeles media.
But by scoring the winning goal in a playoff Game 7 for the third time in a hostile environment, Martinez put the Kings into the Stanley Cup Final.
One more pattern
And for the chaotic climax of an elongated NHL season, the Kings at last had the supposed advantage of home in L.A.’s Staples Center for four of the if-necessary seven games. They were up against the upstart New York Rangers, a team with one Stanley Cup championship since 1940.
Again the Kings were behind 2-0 early in the first two games. Again they tied the scores and forced overtime periods. They won Game 1 in the first OT, Game 2 in double OT.
The Finals went off to New York, Madison Square Garden, and there was more spectacular television theater for the outlanders. The Kings won Game 3, and now they were on the brink of another Stanley Cup championship.
But what team in all the NHL knows better about being down three-to-nothing in best-of-seven series? The Rangers were at home in their blue shirts — the best jersey in all of sports. They themselves were under the bus. They were playing before passionate New Yorkers, without the Cup since 1994. And the Rangers staved off elimination.
So it went into late Friday night on the West Coast — Saturday morning in the rest of the United States and Canada.
Game 5 was pure theater, and there was a script. The patterns had been established.
This time the Kings trailed 2-1 entering the third period. They scored. The game went into overtime. Then a second overtime. On television, the performers were visibly exhausted. The L.A. crowd — still hockey neophytes except for the transplanted Canadians — were boisterous and animated. So noisy I could barely hear the NBC play-by-play from St. Clair’s Mike Emrick, and never has there been a better hockey broadcaster (including Foster Hewitt).
But then it happened, Alec Martinez — again — swept down the left wing and fired a rebound into the net.
This was a moment when television was at its marvelous best.
Martinez threw up his stick. Then he tossed his gloves up and onto the ice.
Then his Los Angeles teammates mobbed him in the corner by the end boards. A joyous scene of champions. Hugging and shrieking and jumping in victory.
And behind them was the Rangers’ gallant Henrik Lundqvist, one goalie pad on the ice, bent over in the despair of defeat. His face hidden by his mask.
The Rangers’ Swedish goaltender who had played so gloriously — and almost, by himself, prevented the Kings from winning the Stanley Cup in a sweep.
But then there is no team in all of sports, in 2014, so resilient and courageous as the Los Angeles Kings. Thrice nearly knocked out of the playoffs — from under the bus to the Stanley Cup championship. Again!
Jerry Green is a retired Detroit News sportswriter. Read his web-exclusive column Saturdays at detroitnews.com.