Well, after a thrilling regular season and an even more exciting Stanley Cup Playoff tournament, the ride is over for 2013-14 and the Los Angeles Kings are the last team left standing. The 2014 Stanley Cup Final ended in one of the most exciting games we've ever seen when Alec Martinez beat Henrik Lundqvist in the second overtime of Game 5 to lift the Kings to their second championship in three seasons.
As we reflect on an amazing postseason, this is what I took from this series and what I see for its two participants going forward:
THE OVERTIME HAT TRICK
There are few things tougher than losing a playoff game in overtime, and fewer things than having it happen three times in the Stanley Cup Final. Not many people can relate to what the New York Rangers experienced these past two weeks, but Kings fans -- and myself -- are some of the few that can. When I coached L.A. in the 1993 Stanley Cup Final, we lost to the Montreal Canadiens with three of those games coming in OT.
It's a killer. It's a real killer feeling.
You just know your team was so good and played every bit as hard as the other team. You know you accomplished so much that season and came so far. It's brutal to experience, particularly when people see that it was only a five-game series and might assume -- wrongly -- that you weren't as competitive as you were. We made that five-game series in 1993 a lot closer than it seemed, and the Rangers made this series much, much closer than it appears on the surface.
When you've been in that room and know you could have won all three of those games, it always eats away at you. The whole time before Game 5 all you're thinking is, "Get one more win and get a Game 6 back in your building." We weren't able to do it and neither were the Rangers. Losing a playoff series always hurts, but to do it this way is just a brutal feeling.
BEST ON THE BENCH
When you look at both the Rangers and the Kings, there's just no denying that we saw two superb coaching performances from Alain Vigneault and Darryl Sutter. I think Vigneault changed the culture of the Rangers. They're not nearly as glitzy as they were a few years ago. John Tortorella did some of that obviously, but Vigneault really brought this team to its workmanlike ways. They were almost never outworked. They shut down teams defensively and really neutralized skilled teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens.
In Game 4 in particular, Vigneault did a tremendous job. With his team down 3-0 he had them ready to play when they had every reason to accept defeat and got them to force a Game 5 that nearly turned into a Game 6. I think he'll look back on this and say it was one of the best jobs he's ever done. Yes, Vigneault took the Vancouver Canucks to the Cup Final three years ago, but he had the best team that season. I don't think anyone would have called the Rangers the best team in the East objectively this season, but they found a way. And perhaps more noteworthy, when you take two different teams with two different rosters and two different playing styles to the Stanley Cup Final in that short a period of time, it's not a mistake.
Meanwhile, Sutter proved again that he is just the perfect coach for the Kings. He has the right blend of toughness and structure, and knows when to make his team buckle down defensively and when to give it freedom offensively. I asked Martinez after Game 5 what he was doing that far up in the play to score the goal. He told me that usually he's supposed to stay back, but the coaches have told the defensemen that if they think they have a chance to change the offensive dynamic they should move up and join the play. That's just a perfect example of that coaching staff knowing what their players can do and giving them the freedom to be creative at the right time.
I also cannot overstate how amazing it is to bring a team back from 3-0 down like Sutter did in the first round. You're just sitting in that room going, "We've got to win four games against a team that just hammered us three times." I've been in those rooms and those situations. You look around that room and you've got a 100-mile stare from everyone. You know they're not buying what you're selling. Sutter, though, he knew what to do. He was the perfect coach for that team.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
This should be a surprise to no one, but the Kings look like a team that will compete for championships for years. I wouldn't be surprised if the Chicago Blackhawks won the Cup next year, and the Colorado Avalanche are on their way, too. The Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks are right there and the Minnesota Wild are really good. The West is stacked and coming out of that conference is tough, but the Kings are not only a talented, gritty, experienced team that knows how to win, they're also incredibly young, too. L.A. might make a few changes this offseason -- re-signing Marian Gaborik will probably be a priority -- but this is a team that will have a chance to win every season for the foreseeable future.
The Kings are made up of solid two-way guys, players that all check well, but can also score if they get a chance. So many different guys score big goals for the Kings and they all recognize that it's part of a team effort. Just look at Justin Williams. Winning the Conn Smythe meant nothing to him. He got it and gave it away right away because he wanted to get the Cup out. Drew Doughty called him the most underrated player in the NHL and he was embarrassed by it. That's what makes the Kings so special. Williams just wants to be part of the team. All the players do. This is a team that just loves being together and it's not an act. That's how winning teams are, and that's how this team is.
As for the Rangers, this was a run that was unexpected, but it doesn't have to be the last one. That said, they will have to make some big decisions if they're going to return. Obviously, the first big thing that needs to be done is decide whether or not Brad Richards will be bought out. I think most people think he will, but his future isn't the only thing the Rangers will need to focus on. Chris Kreider needs to turn into a 30-goal scorer. Rick Nash has to rebound. The offense has to produce more consistently as a whole. Fortunately for the Rangers, the defense is very solid. Ryan McDonagh has turned into one of the best defensemen in the game. Anton Stralman is excellent and the defense as a whole is as good as one you'll find in the NHL. They do need to find some goals somewhere, though. I expect the Rangers to be aggressive this summer.
Whether or not the Rangers can return to the Cup Final will depend on a number of things, of course. They've proven all you need to do is be a playoff team, and I do think they're a consistent playoff team. But the Boston Bruins will be there. Montreal has made great strides and Pittsburgh, with its front office changes, is going to get aggressive and should be as good if not better next season. The Rangers will face steep competition, but if they make the playoffs -- and they certainly should -- they'll have a chance.