NEW YORK – Stretch limos lined the perimeter of Staples Center. Staff members and players’ wives prepared for postgame parties. The fans wore wide grins, carried brooms and talked about a sweep.
All around the Kings, two years ago, people celebrated the Stanley Cup they had to claim. The small matter of actually winning the fourth and final game remained, and the Kings fell into a pit of well-intended distractions. They lost Game 4 to New Jersey, then Game 5, as the limos idled and nerves started to fray.
The Kings eventually beat the Devils in Game 6 and won the first championship in franchise history. They celebrated that experience, and on Wednesday, they’ll show the world whether they learned from it.
The Stanley Cup will be at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday, polished, handled by a man in white gloves, ready to be turned over to the Kings for another summer of debauchery. But first, they need to beat the New York Rangers in Game 4 of the Final. The Kings lead 3-0 in the best-of-7 series.
“We've got the rest of our lives to see our friends and family, make sure they have tickets and all that,” Kings winger Justin Williams said Tuesday. “You have, usually, one chance – and this is our second chance – to do it, to win a Stanley Cup, to be remembered forever.”
There hasn’t been a Final sweep since 1998. Since then, only one team has even taken a 3-0 series lead. That was the Kings, in 2012, who beat the Devils in overtime twice then shut them out in Game 3.
Here they are again. After comeback, overtimes wins in Games 1 and 2 at home, the Kings beat the Rangers, 3-0, in Game 3 on Monday night and closed in on their second championship in 24 months.
They know it won’t be easy. The Kings controlled Game 3, in almost every tangible way, but the Rangers had the better of the first two games, and figure to be highly motivated to avoid losing on home ice.
“It's still an unbelievable situation to be in a Stanley Cup Final,” Rangers center Brad Richards after the team’s optional practice. “We've gotta remember that. There's a lot of players that would love to be here. It's not over. We've gotta get back into it tomorrow and put our best foot forward.”
Asked what his team could do different in Game 4, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said: “Score.”
That would help, yes, but the Kings – one of the lowest-scoring teams in the regular season, have scored 11 goals in three games against a top-flight goalie (Henrik Lundqvist) and a talented set of defensemen.
In Game 3, the Kings cleaned up their defensive- and neutral-zone turnovers, better managed the Rangers’ forecheck and won the special-teams battle. Will the Kings be able to maintain that intensity in Game 4, or in the backs of their minds, are they already thinking celebration?
“We live for these type of moments,” defenseman Drew Doughty said. “Yeah, this team, we're a great team, but we're not finished what we have to do yet.”
The Kings should be able to manage this situation better than they did two years ago. A group of players’ wives and girlfriends, and several staff members, made the trip to New York just in case the Kings finished off the series, but internally, the team is trying to insulate the players as much as possible.
Two years ago, it was a circus. The Kings took a 3-0 lead in each of their four series. They couldn’t believe what was happening, and how fast things were moving. They lost focus and gave life to the Devils.
“I think that was a lesson learned not just for our players but for our whole organization,” Coach Darryl Sutter said. “We were trying to keep our players as a little inner circle, which they still do. But the circle got a little bit of infringement.”
By all outward appearances, the Kings will keep it tighter this time. They came to Madison Square Garden, did an off-ice workout, kicked around a soccer ball and frowned their way through a media session.
The Kings probably would have preferred to play again Tuesday, but for anyone who believes in numerology, there’s this: the Kings won the Stanley Cup on June 11, 2012. Now, exactly two years later, they can do it again, albeit almost 3,000 miles to the east.
“I can't wait to get out there,” Doughty said. “It (is too bad) that the game is at 8 (p.m.), waiting around during the day. You just want to get out there. You don't want to get over-anxious at the same time. But it's fun to play in these types of games.”
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