Although the Los Angeles Kings spent Thursday traveling back across the country instead of celebrating the franchise's first Stanley Cup in 45 years, team governor Tim Leiweke was looking on the bright side that the team still held a 3-1 series lead following a Game 4 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Wednesday night.
"We always thought this was going to be not only a competitive series, but we'd be lucky if we won," Leiweke said. "The series is turning out the way we thought it would, which is it could just as easily be 3-1 Jersey. They are here because they earned it, and we have huge respect -- and in fact the very essence of the Kings hockey operations is largely patterned after the lessons that [Devils general manager] Lou Lamoriello was generous enough to share with me when I was a younger lad than I am today."
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Leiweke and Lamoriello appeared separately as guests on Thursday's "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman" to discuss a Cup Final that, for the most part, has been a lot closer than the Kings' commanding lead might lead one to believe. The first two games were won by L.A. in overtime, and Game 4 was a one-goal affair until an empty-netter by the Devils with 19.1 seconds left.
Lamoriello, who has New Jersey in the Final for the fifth time in his 25 years at the helm, praised his team's ability to handle some of the tough blows dealt in this series.
"I thought our coaches and our players just did a tremendous job last night of just putting everything in the backburner and just getting ready for that game," he said. "And I thought the results said it very loudly as far as how they approached it."
While the Devils' odds remain long as they bid to become the first team since the 1942 Maple Leafs to rally from a 3-0 series deficit in the Final, Lamoriello wants to make sure that in victory or defeat his players know they gave it everything they had.
"I think that the most important thing is the awareness for the players of the opportunity that they have, and how difficult it is to get this opportunity, and that they should make the most of it," he said. "Not only in the game itself, but enjoying the experience and yet making sure that they never look back and feel they could have done more to have success, because it is such a special thing. It is the epitome of what you play for, and all your childhood it's a dream. Just making the importance there and yet keeping it in perspective of life."
Leiweke has been realizing just how special it is, with the Kings in the Final for only the second time in their history. Their first trip in 19 years has seen the city of Los Angeles consumed by the sport, with new celebrities like LL Cool J being turned on to the sport of hockey and unprecedented exposure for the team in the local media.
"The buzz and what we're going through now is amazing," Leiweke said. "We're front page, second page, third page in the newspaper every day. That's never happened to us before, even during [Wayne] Gretzky. We were the No. 1 TV program in the marketplace last night, and what's amazing about that is we were on NBC Sports [Network], so we don't have complete … carriage in the marketplace, and we were on at 5 o'clock [local time] -- and yet we did almost a 7 rating, which is unheard of, it's the highest rating in our history. And we did $1 million of merchandise in two nights. It is phenomenal the way this marketplace has reacted."
While the fans have gone Cup crazy in Los Angeles, what Leiweke has seen so far will be only the beginning if they can win one of the next three games and complete the championship run. The Kings missed the opportunity to match the 1988 Oilers' postseason record of 16-2 by losing Game 4, but in Game 5 they'll have a chance to extend their perfect 10-0 road mark and establish a new NHL standard with 11 road wins in a single playoff season.
Even if home ice has been something of a disadvantage in this year's playoffs, Lamoriello is still happy Saturday's game -- as well as a deciding Game 7, should the Devils be able to force it -- will be at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J.
"I guess that if I had a choice, it will always be home ice," he said. "But I've been on both ends of this now over the years. I can recall two of our three Cups, we had the record that Los Angeles has tied of the most road wins. And then I can recall the last Cup in '03, which for whatever reason we couldn't win on the road -- we lost three games in Anaheim and won four games at home.
"So I've seen both sides of it and I really don't know which is better. I guess it's how you're playing that night. And I don't even think of home ice anymore, other than certainly if you're going into a seventh game you'd rather be home. But there are pressures both ways of playing at home and on the road, and the distractions are more at home than they are on the road, and I think that's what puts the field on such a level ground."