LOS ANGELES -- It will be one year ago Sunday since the Chicago Blackhawks eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in the 2013 Western Conference Final.
For most of the Kings, that was the low point of what has been an incredible three-year run. For Willie Mitchell, it was something different. It was the end of a lost season, one in which Mitchell did not play a single game because of two knee surgeries.
"Yeah, it is tough. Personally, I just disconnected from it," Mitchell said. "I didn't even watch a lot of the playoff games because it is like sticking a knife in you.
"We've all played hockey since we were kids and dreamed of playing in the Stanley Cup Final and winning the Stanley Cup. We have an awesome team around here. When you're not able to do that and you want to do that, it is really out of your control."
Mitchell returned to the Kings this season for games like the one he played Saturday night. Los Angeles defeated the New York Rangers 5-4 in double overtime of Game 2 in the Stanley Cup Final, and the Kings moved within two victories of claiming the Cup for a second time in three seasons.
The 37-year-old defenseman logged 34:14 of ice time, which was the third-most on the team and the most Mitchell had played since the 2012 Western Conference Final-clinching game against the Phoenix Coyotes.
Mitchell scored his first goal of the postseason, and took the shot in double overtime which captain Dustin Brown deflected past New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist for the winner.
"We missed him last year, him being out," Brown said. "It changed the dynamic of the back end. Where I think he makes a very big difference, obviously, is his defensive coverage, [on the penalty kill]. He's very hard to play against down low. You know, [Saturday] you get an added bonus with him making a difference on the offensive side of the puck. His bread and butter is down low and PK."
With the Kings trailing 3-1 in the game, Mitchell was on the ice at the end of a Los Angeles power play and his shot from the left point cut the lead to one. He stayed out after the goal, and 11 seconds later the Rangers' lead was two goals again.
The puck went behind the Kings net, and goaltender Jonathan Quick tried to settle it for Mitchell to play. When Mitchell skated by, he missed the puck on a clearing attempt and Mats Zuccarello was able to feed Derick Brassard for a one-timer before Quick knew what was happening.
"That's one me and [Quick] want to clean up," Mitchell said. "He left it and the puck sort of squirted up. Being a veteran player you go out for that shift and you go, 'OK. Big goal,' because it was clawing us back in the game, but you want to execute on the next shift and we didn't do that. Those are the ones that you don't want to give up.
"I was just going to slap it around the boards. It just hit the top of his stick and popped up a couple feet. You don't want to give up a goal like that when you feel like you got a big goal that got you back in the hockey game."
He was able to atone in the second overtime. Brown took the puck off Ryan McDonagh below the goal line in the offensive zone to start the play. Mitchell's first shot didn't reach the net, but after Anze Kopitar collected the loose puck and got it back to him, Brown was able to deflect the second one past Lundqvist.
It wasn't just last season in which Mitchell missed time. He lost eight games during this postseason run as well, but he was still very much connected during that stretch.
"Oh yeah, I was watching this year," he said. "I was praying the guys could win a Game 7 [against the Anaheim Ducks] and give me a chance to get back after my muscle pull."
While Mitchell was out last season because of two knee surgeries, he spent time with Dr. John Meyer, who helped Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant, among others, with a non-traditional rehabilitation method.
When the Kings won the Cup in 2012, Mitchell was playing next to top defenseman Drew Doughty and a big reason why Los Angeles was dominant on the penalty kill during that magical run. Whether it is a combination of age or the toll from all of his injuries, Mitchell isn't going to be counted on to play top-pairing minutes anymore.
He is still heavily involved on the penalty kill. He is still a mentor for the young members of the Kings' defense corps. He is still a favorite among media members for his honesty and candor.
Mitchell's contract is up at the end of this season, and his future is unknown. His present is going a lot better than it was a year ago, and he is doing his best to savor that.
"[Every postseason is] enjoyable, but yeah, I guess there is a sense of satisfaction," Mitchell said. "I had a plan to get healthy. I kind of relied one of the best guys in the business when it comes to rehabs on a knee, John Meyer, who worked with Kobe. I stayed down here for the summer instead of going back home fishing like I normally do. When your plan works, you execute it well and you come back and you're healthy and play a full season and you get to be part of this, yeah sure, it feels darn good.
"It is nice to be back and be part of this and enjoying it."