Escape Kings: L.A.’s brushes with elimination

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The Los Angeles Kings only lost four games in their astounding 2012 title run. In stark contrast, they were pushed to the brink of elimination in all but one of their series in winning a second Stanley Cup this year.

If you want to make an argument that some teams are best with their backs against the wall, the 2014 Kings might be your Exhibit A. Let’s look back at their sterling efforts when they faced elimination.

(Interestingly, the Kings struggled quite a bit more when they were trying to put another team away. But let’s leave that out to keep this post from being 15,000 words.)

Sharks series

In case you somehow forgot, the Sharks went up 3-0 in this series, only to …

Game 4 vs. San Jose: Kings win 6-3

Who knew how correct Darryl Sutter was in saying that the Kings wouldn’t go away quietly when they were down 3-0 to San Jose? The Kings saw 1-0 and 2-1 leads go away but never trailed in that Game 4, so they passed that early test without too many scares.

The Kings claimed they saw fear build in the Sharks’ eyes as the series got closer to being tied.

Game 5 vs. San Jose: Kings win 3-0

Tyler Toffoli scored the first goal 8:09 into the first period and the Kings didn’t really struggle in protecting a 2-0 first period lead. Jonathan Quick’s hot streak was really taking off at this point.

Game 6 vs. San Jose: Kings win 4-1

Justin Williams gave the Kings a 1-0 lead that they carried for a good chunk of this game, yet things were nervous in the second period. James Sheppard managed to tie things up 12:26 into that frame. Most interestingly, the Kings took three penalties in less than four minutes of game time, including an interference penalty from Robyn Regehr and a high-sticking infraction from Jarret Stoll just 23 seconds apart. You could argue that run of chances was San Jose’s best chance to finally put L.A. away.

Los Angeles pulled away in the third period with its season on the line as Williams and Anze Kopitar combined for three goals in less than three minutes. Things got very nasty at the end of Game 6, including an altercation between Joe Thornton and Quick.

Game 7 vs. San Jose: Kings win 5-1

After a scoreless first period, the Sharks finally scored the first goal of a game in which the Kings were facing elimination in this series as Matt Irwin made it 1-0 early in the second.

That didn’t matter for very long, however, as the Kings scored twice in the middle frame and rattled off five unanswered goals to become one of the few teams to come back from down 3-0 in a series. Quick only allowed two goals in the last three games, beginning a pattern of strong finishes by Los Angeles.

Ducks series

The Kings actually took a 2-0 series lead but eventually found themselves down 3-2 against Anaheim.

Game 6 vs. Anaheim: Kings win 2-1

Jake Muzzin opened the scoring in the first period while Trevor Lewis made it 2-0 with about six minutes left in the second period. Kyle Palmieri cut the lead in half to 2-1 about a minute and a half later, yet that’s as close as the Ducks would get on that night.

Game 7 vs. Anaheim: Kings win 6-2

The Kings made their 5-1 win in Game 7 against San Jose look heated compared to this anticlimactic contest. Williams, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards gave the Kings a 3-0 lead heading into the first intermission. Kopitar and Marian Gaborik didn’t take long to beef that lead up to 5-0. While the Ducks’ goalie carousel continued, Quick continued to be a brick wall when Los Angeles needed him the most.

Blackhawks series

The shoe was on the other foot in this series. Los Angeles had a 3-1 lead after losing Game 1, yet the Blackhawks narrowly avoided elimination in Games 5 and 6 before setting up a fantastic finish.

Game 7 vs. Chicago: Kings win 5-4 in OT

After seeing the Blackhawks barely beat them in two heated games to stretch that classic Western Conference finals to the limit, the Kings managed their own late heroics. To start things off, the Kings survived an early onslaught from Chicago. The ‘Hawks generated 2-0, 3-2 and 4-3 leads yet couldn’t put Los Angeles away. Most dramatically, Gaborik managed to send it to OT with a late third period goal. Alec Martinez’s shot bounced it past Corey Crawford and the Kings managed to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.

***

One might argue that the Kings struggled mightily when the Blackhawks and New York Rangers faced elimination instead of the other way around. Los Angeles generally did things the hard way in this impressive 2014 run, yet they managed to get to the finish line nonetheless.

Sure, you could linger on how close they were to getting bounced … although aside from that Game 7 classic against Chicago, the Kings generally turned it up quite a few notches when their season was on the line.

Chris Kunitz found the fountain of youth in Game 7

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PITTSBURGH — Chris Kunitz has put together an impressive and often times overlooked resume during his 13 years in the NHL. He has been a top-line player on three Stanley Cup winning teams, he has an Olympic Gold Medal, and before Thursday’s Game 7 against the Ottawa Senators had scored 275 goals (regular season and playoffs) in the NHL.

By any objective measure that is a fantastic career.

During the Penguins’ 3-2 overtime win on Thursday to send them back to the Stanley Cup Final for the second year in a row, he played what was perhaps the biggest — and best — game of his career.

It could not have come at a better time for the Penguins.

Or at a more unexpected one.

Kunitz played a role in all three Penguins’ goals, scoring two of them, including the overtime winner, and providing the key screen on Justin Schultz‘s third period power play goal. As if that was not enough, he also recorded an assist on that Schultz goal.

He was, to say the least, a force and the single biggest contributor in the Penguins’ win. Even if he downplayed his overtime winner as simply being the result of a little bit of luck.

“I was just trying to get into a soft spot,” said Kunitz. “The puck fluttered off my stick a little, I don’t know if it touched [Jean-Gabriel Pageau] or kept going right in, but it looked like there was a good screen on the goalie, it looked like he maybe fell down, it just found its way into the net. Sometimes you just get lucky when you put one on net.”

Lucky or not, Kunitz was the unexpected hero in Game 7 and it came on a night where he seemed to rediscover his game.

Kunitz playing such an essential role in a big playoff win wouldn’t have been that big of a shock four or five years ago.

He has been a core player since arriving in Pittsburgh during the 2008-09 season and spent years skating on the top line alongside Sidney Crosby.  That presence on Crosby’s wing almost did more to hurt his reputation because there was always that belief he was simply a product of skating alongside the best player in the world. But he has always been more than that. He has been a legitimately good top-six winger that had also found success even when away from Crosby.

But on Thursday it was a taste of the old days with Crosby setting up the overtime winner.

“[Sheary] did a really good job bringing it up the wall and walking the blue like, and I think Sid was coming right off the bench,” said Kunitz. “When he drives it deep everyone gets scared and you can find that soft area because obviously Sid has great vision, and he put it right there. I just found a way to put it on net and got lucky.”

What makes his performance such a stunner this season, and in this game, is that it came at a time when his best days were clearly in the past and he had gone from being a top-line, core player, to being more of a bottom-six role player.

At the age of 37 that had to be expected. He was still able to do enough to be a useful contributor, but the consistent impact on the scoresheet wasn’t always there. Entering Game 7 on Thursday night he had yet to score a goal and had recorded just a pair of assists in his first 13 playoff games. Along with that postseason scoring drought he only scored nine goals during the regular season and had not found the back of the net since Feb. 16, a stretch of 78 days.

Then there he is playing the role of hero in what was, to this point, the Penguins’ biggest game of the season.

“He played his best game of the playoffs when it matters the most,” said Penguins forward Carl Hagelin. “That’s the type of guy he is and that’s the reason he has three Stanley Cup rings already. He’s just one of those guys you love having on your team.”

This is pretty much what Game 7’s in the Stanley Cup playoffs are all about. Anything can happen when a series and a season all comes down to one game.

It only takes one shot, one bounce, one play, one call or one huge performance from an unexpected player to totally re-write history.

In Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals a year ago it was Bryan Rust, representing the next wave and younger generation of the Penguins, playing the role of hero with his two goal-game.

This year, it was one of their long-time core players rediscovering his past glory for one night.

2017 Stanley Cup Final schedule: Nashville Predators vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

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The Pittsburgh Penguins might celebrate their hard-fought tonight, but they’d probably be wise to rest up. It won’t be long before they’ll face the well-rested Nashville Predators in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

That first contest will take place on Monday, May 29. The Penguins ended their series on Thursday (or, maybe Friday if you’re being a stickler) while the Predators get a week of rest after dispatching the Ducks this past Monday (May 22).

NBC and NBCSN will have you covered for what should be a fast and fascinating series with a whole lot of gold/yellow going around. Game 1 will be on NBC, Games 2 and 3 will air on NBCSN and then the remaining contests will take place on NBC.

Here’s the schedule in list form, as that may be easier to follow:

2017 STANLEY CUP FINAL SCHEDULE
Subject to Change/All Times ET

Game Date Time (ET) Pittsburgh vs. Nashville Networks
Game 1 Monday, May 29 8 p.m. Nashville at Pittsburgh NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 2 Wednesday, May 31 8 p.m. Nashville at Pittsburgh NBCSN, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 3 Saturday, June 3 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at Nashville NBCSN, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 4 Monday, June 5 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at Nashville NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 5* Thursday, June 8 8 p.m. Nashville at Pittsburgh NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 6* Sunday, June 11 8 p.m. Pittsburgh at Nashville NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
Game 7* Wednesday, June 14 8 p.m. Nashville at Pittsburgh NBC, CBC, Sportsnet, TVA Sports
* If necessary

Penguins end Senators’ magical run, reach second Stanley Cup Final in a row

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The Ottawa Senators put up a resounding fight, but the Sens’ “Cinderella” story came to an end tonight.

The Pittsburgh Penguins needed a double-overtime in Game 7 to write the final chapter, yet that’s what happened; now the defending champions prepare to face a well-rested Nashville Predators in the Stanley Cup Final.

An unforgettable night for Kunitz

Hot take: Mike Sullivan made the right move in placing Chris Kunitz on Sidney Crosby‘s line.

Crosby created some chances early on in Game 7, but things just weren’t clicking for the Pittsburgh Penguins. That swap opened up some opportunities for Kunitz – once a constant linemate of Crosby – and the veteran winger provided perhaps the best performance of his impressive career.

As surprising as this turn was, maybe it should have been expected; Kunitz is one of the greatest success stories of any undrafted players, after all.

Plenty of twists and turns

After a scoreless second period, the two teams traded goals within just 20 seconds; Chris Kunitz cashed in on a nice rush while Mark Stone finished a great Erik Karlsson setup to make it 1-1.

More: Video and other details regarding those opening tallies.

The third period featured plenty of drama, even if some of the larger points echoed earlier narratives. To be more precise, the Penguins leveraged their power-play opportunity to a 2-1 lead (via Justin Schultz), but Ryan Dzingel‘s rebound 2-2 goal ensured that the lead wouldn’t last.

Read more about the 2-2 goals and some controversial moments from the third period here. You may also enjoy this Marc Methot hip check on Evgeni Malkin.

The overtime period began with a frantic pace; even fans probably needed the breather. Some great Phil Kessel chances didn’t end the opening overtime period, so things went to double-OT.

Ponder Kessel’s tumultuous times in the first overtime here.

It wasn’t beautiful, but Chris Kunitz’s knucklepuck beat a keyed-in Craig Anderson to end the contest and the series. He came into Thursday with zero goals and two assists in 13 playoff games; he generated the game-winner, the game-opener and an assist, factoring into all three Penguins goals.

Deep playoff runs come down to some combination of stars being stars and unexpected heroes shining in huge moments. The Penguins keep finding ways to get that equation just right.

Penguins – Senators Game 7 goes to double overtime, try to breathe

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Try to breathe. Maybe meditate during this overtime intermission, if you need it.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Ottawa Senators didn’t just need overtime to decide who would win Game 7 and advance to the Stanley Cup Final. It turns out that, despite an angry Penguins crowd, that they’ll need double OT.

There were plenty of big chances during that span of “free hockey.” You could probably argue that Phil Kessel was the most frustrated player during that frame; he was unable to score but generated some golden opportunities.

One really looked like it might have beaten Craig Anderson:

Wow. This one likely stings more for Kessel, as he had a ton of time and space but missed the net.

Kessel wasn’t the only player to get chances. There were a ton in this first overtime as both teams took thrilling swipes at victory. Still, number 81 provided some of the most memorable moments.

You can watch Game 7 live on NBCSN. The game can also be viewed online and via the NBC Sports App. Here is the livestream link.