CHICAGO -- The Los Angeles Kings completed one of the most remarkable runs to the Stanley Cup Final with their Game 7 overtime victory Sunday.
Los Angeles dethroned the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks in an epic seven-game Western Conference Final. It was the third consecutive seven-game survival for the Kings, and they became the first team to win three Game 7s on the road in one postseason as well as the first to play 21 games in the first three rounds and still advance to the Cup Final.
What made it even more remarkable was the quality of competition in Los Angeles' path. While the Kings defeated the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 seeds in the Western Conference en route to the Stanley Cup in 2012 and did so by racing out to a 3-0 lead in each series, the journey to the 2014 Final was unquestionably harder.
The San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Blackhawks finished the regular season with a combined 334 points. For perspective, the top three seeds in the West in 2012 combined for 317 points.
San Jose, Anaheim and Chicago were among the top seven teams in the NHL in points this season. They were among the top six in goals scored per game.
There was little to choose from between the Kings and Blackhawks. Play that series out 100 times and both teams are winning close to 50.
Here are five reasons that were part of the slim difference that allowed the Kings to reach the Stanley Cup Final for a second time in three years:
1. Spine supremacy
The Kings are deeper than the Blackhawks at center, and that played out in the series. Andrew Shaw's return and promotion to the second line helped Chicago near the end of the series, but the damage was done early.
The perception before the series was the Kings were better in goal than the Blackhawks, and while Jonathan Quick ultimately was better than Corey Crawford in this series, it wasn't by much. Crawford finished with an .872 save percentage while Quick checked in at .884.
Maybe the biggest surprise was the lack of an advantage for the Blackhawks on the blue line. Drew Doughty probably was the best player in the series, and Jake Muzzin and Slava Voynov were not outplayed by the players who slot in behind Duncan Keith on the Blackhawks' depth chart. If the defense corps played to a draw, that's a win for the Kings. Like everything else in this series, it was close.
The Boston Bruins had similar advantages in the 2013 Cup Final, but the Blackhawks were able to find workarounds in their favor. They almost did in this series as well.
2. Power up
Success for the Kings has been built on strong goal prevention and even-strength dominance the past three seasons. Chicago scored plenty of goals in this series and the possession stats during 5-on-5 play were pretty even.
Los Angeles took control of the series early with the help of some strong work on special teams. The Kings were dominant on the penalty kill in 2012, but the power play struggled mightily.
They scored five times with the man advantage during Games 2-4, all of which were Kings victories. For added measure, Los Angeles also escaped the only two-man advantage situation of the series in Game 7 despite Doughty and Willie Mitchell, the two defensemen coach Darryl Sutter likely use in a 3-on-5 situation, in the penalty box.
3. Carter and the kids
The series became a tale of the second lines. Chicago's new-look second trio of Shaw between Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad was excellent in the final three games.
The three players dubbed "That 70s Line" by Kings-centric blog The Royal Half, Jeff Carter flanked by rookies Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson, played starring roles in helping Los Angeles forge a 3-1 lead in the series. Carter had seven points in Games 2 and 3 alone. Toffoli and Carter each had a goal in Game 7.
Justin Williams laid it out pretty simply early in the series. The Kings were champions in 2012. The Blackhawks were the team that knocked them out in 2013. The Kings want the Stanley Cup back, but they also wanted to return the favor.
Was that little extra bit of motivation enough in a tight series like this? Maybe. It's an advantage the Blackhawks will have if this burgeoning rivalry becomes a trilogy in 2015.
It's become the narrative of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs for the Kings. It started with a historic comeback in the opening round after falling behind 3-0 to the Sharks. It continued when they won Game 6 and dismantled the Ducks in Game 7 after trailing 3-2 in their second-round series.
In the conference final it was all about erasing in-game leads instead of overall ones. Los Angeles rallied from a deficit nine times in the series, including three times in Game 7. The Kings fell behind 2-0 in a game three times and still won two of them.
They didn't do this against an inexperienced club that wilted under the pressure. They did it against the defending champs, the one team in the conference with the same level of championship experience on the roster.
That's what made it even more remarkable.