LOS ANGELES, Calif. - Wayne Gretzky dropped the ceremonial first puck for Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals on Monday, working an already excited crowd at Staples Center into a frenzy.
The NHL's career scoring leader is still beloved in Los Angeles even after spending four seasons coaching the division rival Phoenix Coyotes. Gretzky spent eight seasons with the Kings, winning three scoring titles and becoming the franchise's fourth-leading career scorer with 918 points in just 539 games.
Gretzky also is still the Kings' career playoff scoring leader with 94 points in 60 games. He led Los Angeles to its only previous trip to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993.
The Devils knew Gretzky was likely to appear before Game 3, but weren't worried.
"I think this is going to be an unbelievable atmosphere," New Jersey defenceman Bryce Salvador said. "I think we've done a good job of not overanalyzing or putting too much pressure on any situation."
TIME CHANGE: Everybody knows the NHL's Eastern Conference teams carry a much smaller travel burden than their West Coast counterparts, but this is a bit ridiculous.
The Devils' appearance in California is the first time they have left the Eastern time zone since Jan. 14, when they finished a three-game trip through Western Canada. New Jersey hadn't even been on a plane since April 26 after playing Philadelphia and the New York Rangers in the past two playoff rounds.
With no trip further than the Miami area in the entire post-season before the finals, the Devils actually missed travelling.
"It feels good to get back into this routine a little bit, get on the road, get away from home and get back to being focused on the single thing ??? the game," Devils defenceman Andy Greene said. "When you're on the road, there's a lot less distractions, a lot less things to worry about."
The Kings didn't have that luxury, travelling to Vancouver and St. Louis before a short conference finals trip to Phoenix. Los Angeles trimmed its travel weariness by keeping every series to fewer than six games, requiring only five total trips out of town ??? just one to St. Louis in a second-round sweep.
"We've done this before, and if we have to go on the road again, we're ready to handle it," Kings defenceman Drew Doughty said.
MESSIER'S MEMORIES: There weren't many Mark Messier sightings during the New Jersey Devils' conference finals reprise with the New York Rangers because that was the way the former Rangers captain wanted it.
So many comparisons were made between this year's series and the one in 1994, when Messier guaranteed a Rangers victory in Game 6 and scored a hat trick to force a seventh and deciding contest. New York won that one on Stephane Matteau's double-overtime goal, and the Broadway Blueshirts beat Vancouver in seven games to win their first and only Stanley Cup title since 1940.
"It really was an incredible time," Messier recalled Monday at Staples Center before the Devils took on the Los Angeles Kings in Game 3. "When I think of all my teammates ??? and a lot of them were texting back and forth throughout this series and talking about it ??? I was really trying to kind of stay out of the way during the series.
"I really felt that the players on both teams ??? not only the Rangers but the Devils ??? had earned the right to be in that position and shouldn't have been overshadowed by the things that had happened prior to that. My ship had sailed a long time ago, but it was an incredible series back in '94, with probably the two best teams in the league playing in the conference final. And it turned out to be a memorable series ??? probably some of the best hockey I've ever played. And being in New York, with the Devils and Marty Brodeur, there were a million story lines to write and to tell, so it was great for hockey from a journalistic standpoint."
Messier also won five Stanley Cup titles in Edmonton in a seven-year span between 1984 and 1990, the last one without Wayne Gretzky after he was traded to the Kings ??? a watershed moment for the NHL because of the impact it had on the Kings getting to the 1993 finals, and the impact he had on the growth of the sport in California.
"One of the things I'm most proud of is being in the finals seven times and knowing what it takes to get to one final," Messier said. "So I can certainly appreciate what the Kings are going through and the position they're in and how hard they had to work in order to get there. With today's parity and the way the game is right now, 10 wins in a row on the road in the playoffs and losing just two games to this point is pretty remarkable."
CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS: Three captains who led their respective teams to the Stanley Cup playoffs ????????? Ryan Callahan of the New York Rangers, Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes and Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings, were named Monday as finalists for the annual Mark Messier Leadership Award.
The award is presented to the player who most exemplified the leadership role on the ice and in the community. It will be presented on June 20 in Las Vegas, the night all of the NHL's major awards are handed out.
"These three players have had incredible seasons on the ice, leading their teams to tremendous success during the regular season and in the playoffs," Messier said at Staples Center before Game 3. "The professionalism that they've all displayed on and off the ice in their communities, raising awareness with the children in their individual charities, is very inspiring.
"With the position I am in right now, to be able to look at these players and see exactly what they're doing is something that we can really celebrate as a league and be proud of. We want to recognize the goodness that our players display ????????? not only on the ice but off the ice, as well ????????? because we feel that's a big part of being a professional."
Brown played the entire 82-game schedule for the third consecutive season, finishing with 22 goals, 28 assists and a plus-18 rating. He has a chance to become the second American-born player to captain a Stanley Cup champion. Derian Hatcher did it with Dallas in 1999.
"Dustin has been more in the spotlight because of the success they've had in the playoffs this year. But when you look at Dustin and the people he's been around the past few years, it not surprising," Messier said. "His initiative in the community and the charity work that he's done in the foundation that he started has been remarkable for a young man like him.
"I think we're seeing a lot more of Dustin Brown and what he's meant to this organization for the last few years," Messier added. "A lot of times, it's all you can do to concentrate and get yourself ready to play the game. So to be a captain and have that kind of maturity level and that presence to not only be able to play well and be responsible for as a captain of a hockey team, but go beyond that and go into the community and help the children out, it's remarkable what he's done."