CHICAGO -- The San Jose Sharks thought they had the Los Angeles Kings down and out. The Anaheim Ducks thought the same thing. On Sunday, the Chicago Blackhawks became the latest team to make the mistake of pronouncing the Kings dead.
In a memorable Game 7 of the Western Conference Final, the Blackhawks took a two-goal lead in the first nine minutes. To most everyone, it looked like the Kings had finally run out of gas after rallying from a 3-0 series deficit against the favored Sharks and from a 3-2 hole against the top-seeded Ducks.
But this Kings team is like no other the NHL has seen.
"We never thought we weren't going to do it," Kings defenseman Drew Doughty said. "Two of their goals were pretty lucky, one from behind the goalie and the chip shot or whatever that was.
"We weren't going to let those kind of goals defeat us. We knew that we were going to get them back, get some dirty goals from crashing the net. That's basically how we won the game; we never gave up."
Three times Sunday night, the Kings fell behind; three times they tied it up before defenseman Alec Martinez floated a wrister from the point that pin-balled off Chicago defenseman Nick Leddy and past helpless goalie Corey Crawford for the overtime winner in a 5-4 instant classic.
The goal by Martinez, in the sixth minute of overtime, marked the ninth Blackhawks lead erased by the Kings in this series, including four two-goal deficits. With will of that magnitude, it is no surprise Los Angeles became the first team to win three Game 7s in the same playoff season to reach the Stanley Cup Final. All three victories came in hostile buildings and featured a total of 16 Los Angeles goals.
The third Game 7 victory of the run came against a Chicago team that won the Stanley Cup last season, going through the Kings at this very stage of the postseason.
It is a testament to the resiliency and character of a team that won the Stanley Cup in 2012 and believed it had a chance to repeat before a spate of injuries left the Kings essentially fighting one-handed against the Blackhawks in the conference final.
"We believe we were a better team than they were this year," Doughty said. "Last year I felt like their team was a little bit better, but this year we felt like we were the better team. We were just never going to let that go away; we were always going to believe that we could come back, that we could win."
Game 7 was the very definition of that belief.
When Chicago captain Jonathan Toews scored on the power play at 8:36 to give the Blackhawks a 2-0 lead, it felt a bit like midnight had struck for the Kings. United Center was rocking as loud as it ever has, and the Blackhawks owned all the momentum after winning Game 5 in double overtime and Game 6 with a two-goal rally in the third period.
So all the Kings did was score twice in 51 seconds, getting goals from series hero Jeff Carter and Game 7 tour de force Justin Williams, who has seven goals and seven assists in seven career Game 7s, a points total not achieved by any other player in League history.
But the Blackhawks scored 12 seconds after the goal by Williams, again suggesting it might not be the Kings' night. Halfway through the second, Tyler Toffoli tied it, but then Sharp scored his second of the game to give Chicago what turned out to be its final lead of the series, 4-3.
In the third period, missing ingredient Marian Gaborik, acquired at the NHL Trade Deadline in a trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets, scored his 12th goal of the postseason to make it 4-4, and goalie Jonathan Quick made an incredible save from a split position with 5.7 seconds left in regulation to preserve the tie.
In overtime, each team had chances before Martinez delivered the biggest goal of his young career and rewarded the faith his team had expressed throughout the game, throughout the series and throughout these Stanley Cup Playoffs.
It is easy to say you had faith when things go your way. But looking at Doughty as he sat, physically and emotionally drained by what had transpired during the past two weeks, it was evident these Kings really do believe they can conquer any challenge in their path to greatness.
But where does that faith come from?
"It's kind of hard to put everything into words right now," Los Angeles first-line center Anze Kopitar said.
But his linemate Dustin Brown tried anyway, because that is what these Kings do; they try anyway in all facets of the game.
"It's just a trust system and a belief system within this room as a result of being together for hundreds of games together and climbing the hill once and trying to do it again," said Brown, the Kings captain. "We know what to expect and we expect a lot from each other.
"There's times when there's not nice things said to each other, and it's all in the nature of motivating each other and motivating each other to be better. When you have guys that have been together, you're capable of holding each other accountable and pushing to the next level."
For the Kings, it has all coalesced into one dangerous finished product, one that will attempt to win a second Stanley Cup in three years beginning Wednesday against the New York Rangers at Staples Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).
"It's no coincidence; that team knows how to win," said Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, who has led his team to 27 postseason wins the past two springs.