EL SEGUNDO, CA — More than one week has passed since the Los Angeles Kings were bounced out of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs by the Chicago Blackhawks, who took the Kings out in a rather decisive five games in the Western Conference Final.
Since that time, the Stanley Cup Final has begun, with the Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins tied, with one win each, heading into Game 3 in Boston (tonight, 5:00 PM PDT; televised on NBC Sports Network, CBC, RDS). Meanwhile, Kings players are already into the summer routine, many having already left Southern California for home.
Although their summer will be almost exactly the same length as it would have been if there was no lockout this season, no matter the length, it will likely feel like a long summer after the Kings failed to reach their goal: to defend their 2012 Stanley Cup Championship.
“We set out this year to defend what we did last year—defend the Cup, but we weren’t able to do that,” said goaltender Jonathan Quick. “In that sense, we fell short of what we wanted to do. I think that we did accomplish a lot, and we did play hard. We had some ups and downs throughout the season, but we were able to overcome [them], and get into the playoffs.”
Despite not being able to defend their title, head coach Darryl Sutter said his team did everything they wanted to do this season.
“I think we went farther than—we went to the Conference Final again,” he noted, “That tells you how fine a line it is. We got beat in the Conference Final by the best team in the conference at the end of the day. We accomplished everything.”
“Once you set the bar up there, then that’s your bar,” he added. “So obviously, we’re disappointed to lose to Chicago, but we’re certainly not disappointed in how we played. I mean, I think you look at our season, other than not getting home ice, we’ve done everything we’ve wanted.”
That said, their goal was not just to reach the Conference Finals.
“You don’t take solace in losing,” said right wing Justin Williams, a two-time Stanley Cup Champion with the Carolina Hurricanes and the Kings. “Yeah, we were one of the final four, but that wasn’t our goal when we started the season. We weren’t able to defend what we did last year. That’s a frustrating thing.”
“As a team, and individually, I don’t think we played as well as we could have,” Quick noted. “You’ve got to tip your cap to Chicago. They played a great series. They had a lot of guys step up, and make some big plays at the right times. We’re disappointed that we weren’t able to do that.”
“We put together a little bit of a run, but we’d like to be playing hockey for another couple of weeks,” Quick added. “From an organizational standpoint, I think we’ve only been to one conference final before last year, and we were able to [go to] two in two years. But we want more.”
As both Sutter and Quick pointed out, the Kings were able to accomplish something few teams have in the modern era.
“Since you had the big three, and I think we all know that before the  lockout, Colorado, Detroit and Dallas were the class of the league, I think there’s only been one team that won the Stanley Cup, and gone to the Conference Final the next year,” said Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi. “That shows you how hard it is. You had teams that won [the Stanley Cup], and didn’t even [make the playoffs the next season, or] were out after the first round. I think Detroit was the only team to win it [in 1997], and go on to the Conference Final the next year, and they went to the [Stanley Cup] Final (repeating as Stanley Cup Champions).”
Surprise! Quick Takes The Blame
As he frequently does, whether or not it was his fault (it rarely is), Quick blamed himself for his team’s failures this season, and especially against Chicago in the Western Conference Final.
“I wasn’t good enough, obviously,” he said. “I wasn’t very good throughout the regular season.”
When asked if his off-season back surgery had anything to do with his regular season performance, Quick was…quick (pardon the pun) to point out that it never impacted his play.
“If I felt I wasn’t 100 percent in January, I would’ve told the coach, and I wouldn’t have been playing,” he emphasized. “I felt 100 percent going into the season. The back surgery had nothing to do with my lack of performance earlier.”
“I got a little better later in the season, and played pretty good hockey for a couple of rounds, but I feel like I had a big let down in the last series,” he added.
It should be noted here that Quick ended the playoffs with a 1.86 goals-against average, a .934 save percentage, and three shutouts—all stellar numbers. As of this writing, he ranks third in playoff goals-against average and save percentage, and leads the league in playoff shutouts.
“That feeling of disappointment…is going to stick with me for awhile,” said Quick. “You’re going to think about that all summer until you get to [training] camp, when you start thinking about next season. So you feel that sting for a little bit, you take a week or two to rest and recover, and then you get back at it.”
“We Want More”
As Quick said, after being eliminated by the Blackhawks and missing out on a chance to defend their title, the Kings were left wanting more.
“There’s a combination of disappointment and anger,” Lombardi said after meeting with some of his players. “I think you get a little of both, and I think that’s how your emotions progress. I think you know the disappointment of losing.”
But Lombardi was quick to point out that his players’ reaction is exactly what you want to see, and is a positive sign of things to come.
“This is something that I said when we were building this thing,” he explained. “I told you this two years ago, that when we got beat in the playoffs [in 2011], I think it was against San Jose, in Game 6. That was the first year that guys went home ticked off, versus ‘make the playoffs, get knocked out—well, good season.’”
“At that time, I said we were progressing, because it was clearly the first time guys were ticked off that the season was over,” he elaborated. “Now they’re at the conference final level where they’re ticked off at the missed opportunity. Again, it’s progress to think that they go to the conference final, and they’re angry that they’re done.”
“That’s a tribute to them, [for] having raised the bar so high. But that’s what they always wanted, and that’s what you strive for. But on the other hand, that’s what makes it incredibly difficult for those first couple of days.”
As Lombardi pointed to the players, giving them credit, Quick pointed right back at Lombardi, along with the coaching staff, and his team’s leadership group.
“[It] says a lot about what Dean has put together, and the coaching staff, and their direction,” said Quick. “We’ve [also] got great leaders on our team—good captains, and guys who really care for each other. When you put all those things together, you expect a lot. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do everything we wanted to do. I wouldn’t say it was a lost season because we did accomplish a lot, just not everything we wanted to do.”
Lockout Following A Championship Worked Against Them
After winning the 2012 Stanley Cup Championship, for all intents and purposes, the Kings went straight into the National Hockey League’s lockout that delayed the start of the 2012-13 season into January 2013.
The lockout left players in limbo throughout the summer and fall, not knowing if there would be any season at all. That impacted off-season physical training, and the short, one-week “training camp” did not help matters at all.
For the Kings it was a perfect storm of sorts, and it almost washed them out to sea, so to speak.
“It really struck me, how difficult the challenge was this year, right from the get-go, with the short training camp, getting behind the eight-ball, to all those games in March when every game was critical, to going down, 2-0, to St. Louis,” said Lombardi. “I give these guys a lot of credit for getting here.”
Lombardi indicated that a big reason for his team’s ability to overcome so many of the obstacles placed in their path this season was not just to win another championship, but also to once again experience the euphoria of winning a championship.
“There’s your mixed emotions,” Lombardi noted. “In terms of having won it last year, I think you’ve heard that adage from top guys—I’ve heard this from a number of top athletes who have won multiple championships. They say that once you’ve won earlier in your career, that’s all you want to do, and the reason is that you realize how great the feeling is. Now you truly know that all that work is worthwhile. Until you get there, you really don’t know.”
“When you’re putting in all that effort—banged up, playing all those games—when you see a hockey player go through the playoffs—last year, my respect for players grew ten-fold, having witnessed it, every day, how hard it is,” Lombardi added. “But having experienced the feeling that you get after, now you know what it feels like, and it’s been taken away from you. You don’t know what you’ve lost until it’s gone. You don’t know what you’ve lost until you’ve experienced it. You can surmise it. I surmised it, but I had no idea about the feeling I was going to have when those guys won, and you can’t explain it. It’s better than anything you can imagine.”
“Once you’ve had that feeling, and it’s taken away from you, it hurts, and it’s a combination of disappointment, and [being] ticked off.”
Given the circumstances, Lombardi said that he was proud of his team for fighting to advance as far as they did.
“You can’t condone losing,” Lombardi stressed. “You never want to do that. But I have to condone their sense of honor. They didn’t quit. They fought through, and given the history of it, they deserve to be commended for what they did accomplish, and they deserve to be commended for the fact that they’re not satisfied. You never want to get back in that mode like we were four years ago, where you’re out in the first round—good season. That’s clearly not the case.”
“Given the history of it, and witnessing first-hand how this season was, from training camp on, and the challenges they faced, I have to condone their sense of honor,” Lombardi added.
The Silver Lining
Prior to the start of the Western Conference Final, the Kings had a bit of time to look back at the first two rounds of the playoffs, which were night and day experiences compared to how their 2012 playoff run had gone.
Winger and captain Dustin Brown summed it up best, prior to the start of the Western Conference Final against Chicago, when he said, “The best way to put it is that we kind of screwed ourselves doing what we did last year, because that set the standard, right? I think it was unrealistic, looking back on it, to think we could do that again.”
Indeed, the challenge in the 2013 post-season was far different, and a much greater one, something Lombardi pointed to as a net positive.
“The beauty of this—the challenges they faced this year—now you go to the other side to the benefits—there were a lot of different challenges that they met here,” he noted. “Certainly, the regular season was one of them. But the playoffs, too, in particular, because last year, until we got to Game 6 against New Jersey, I don’t think we faced that real—where fear of losing can seep in. That’s that whole thing about believing in yourself versus fearing you’re going to lose versus believing you’re going to win, and you have to be put into those situations.”
“I think [assistant coach] John Stevens said it last year, in the summer,” he added. “It might’ve been the best thing that happened to them that we had to go to a Game 6, because you start to feel a different [kind of] pressure. We didn’t have that against Vancouver. We didn’t have it against St. Louis last year. This year? Right out of the box, down 2-0. Different challenge. Game 7 against San Jose, a very good team. Different challenge.”
“I think we learned something about getting behind the eight-ball too soon. But there were clearly different challenges they overcame, and again, they deserve to be commended for that.”
Lombardi also indicated that his team has made of the most of their failures.
“The one thing about this group, they’ve shown, all along, they’ve learned every step of the way,” said Lombardi. “They’ve learned from their failures.”
“Getting where they were was to learn from their failures,” added Lombardi. “Winning the Cup was learning to deal with success. There were so many different challenges they faced this year, and they met a lot of them. They just didn’t meet the one that ultimately matters to them. Nobody, in any way, shape, or form, can say that they quit.”
“I don’t know how many e-mails I got from hockey people, other general managers [after Game 5 in Chicago], and that was their tone. They said, ‘Dean, the one thing you can say is that those boys do not quit.’ That’s the type of culture we set out to build, and we’ll continue to try and do that.”
On the topic of learning from their failures, Williams put it best when he said, “Sometimes you have to lose again to remember how hard it was to win.”
Stick tap to LA Kings Insider Jon Rosen, who contributed to this story.