Maybe it's because we're not used to the idea of a series--up to seven games between the same two teams, games that may take nearly two weeks to play--that the first round of the NHL playoffs felt so long for LA hockey fans. It's over now, the team having lost on Sunday night, but before the whole thing is forgotten, those of you not interested in the game might give one moment's pause to consider the plight of the Angelino afflicted with the love of hockey.
Same thing out here in LA. The wait was forever to get back in the playoffs (eight years, for those of you not keeping a precise count), and even this year, near the end when the Kings seemed like they would make it but were flirting with giving it all back in a post-Olympic slump, it felt like time slowed down. Once the team got in, the clock moved even more slowly.
In one way, that's because the playoffs bring so much hope. Every day fans wake up thinking about their team. Sure, it was only the opening round, what was called not too many years ago the "elimination round," which only existed to dispatch the lesser teams, those which didn't have any business being in the thing to begin with. But Kings fans knew that if things went right, their team could move on, eventually to play for the Stanley Cup. They hadn't gotten that far since 1993.
It was absurd to hope that they could get that far again this year, but still, while the team was in it, LA-based hockey nuts could greet each other across the breakfast table by saying, "Is this the year?"
They say you have to lose before you win, and many NHL teams have proven this to be so over the years. Carolina lost a Finals to Detroit before later winning it all, in 2006. The Ducks did the same, New Jersey beating them before Anaheim conquered Ottawa in 2007. Even Detroit lost, back in the 1990s, before they became champions and then repeat champs over and over again.
That doesn't make the losing any easier, of course. Look at Ottawa, Colorado, and New Jersey this year. The dream lasted just nine or ten days for them, and the fact that it's over seems harsh, but think of their fans, how much anticipation they've had over this nearly two-week period. For that time, nothing else has mattered.
When I was a kid, one year, Montreal lost in the semi-finals. I think it was to Boston. The series went 4-2, and I can remember thinking how horrible it was that they didn't get anything more done than that. It seemed like a disgrace. Why hadn't they at least pushed it to seven games? I wondered. I, only years later, realized that 4-2 isn't so bad. In fact, it's just a win from 3-3, and that crucial seventh game.
Now when I look at playoff history and see that a team was dispatched in six, I don't think of it as such a horror. And that's precisely why I'm not feeling too bad about the Kings losing to Vancouver Sunday night.
This last ten days that the Kings have been in it have seemed like an eternity to me. I've waited each game day for the puck to drop at night. The first game, in Vancouver, things were close. But for Luongo snatching a puck off the goal line, the underdog Kings would have been ahead by a game. In game two, they won, overtime this time going in their favor.
At home, they won again, and last Wednesday night in LA, they should have. Had they done so, they would have gone up 3-1, and Vancouver would have been in trouble.
In every series, there is a moment, a flash that tells you what will happen. That what is to come is inevitable. For the Kings, that happened Wednesday night. As the third period started, there was the feeling in the arena that no matter what they did, they could not be beaten. They were ahead in the game, 3-2. But then came the cruel reverse of losing the game.
Two goals put the Canucks ahead, 4-3. The Kings tied it on a poke-in goal from the crease by gritty Wayne Simmonds. Yet that feeling of invincibility still lingered. It seemed like the teams would go to overtime. Then came the goal that represented Vancouver's resurgent strength. Their best guys, the Sedin twins, played tick-tack-toe with the puck, freezing the Kings and stifling their hopes and those of their fans. It was 5-4, and another went in before the end.
It might as well have been 8-4, because in that moment when the puck went in to give the visitors the lead, it was obvious to anyone with any real eye for the game that the Kings were dead, though the series was even at two apiece.
Still, this is the playoffs, and there's hope. Maybe it was hope against hope at this point, but one could still have gotten up Friday morning with the thought that things could change. The Kings could avenge the loss, and be up 3-2. A 4-2 series win for them was still in the realm of possibility.
Then gametime came on Friday, and the LA team used both its goalies and still couldn't stop anything the Canucks threw at them. Their defense made mistakes. Their offense didn't generate anything. The Canucks were by far the better team. They won, 7-2.
Because it's a series, that wasn't the end, Vancouver not yet having won the requisite four games. The win in game five was just their third. They would have to return to LA to wrap it up. On the other hand, the Kings could still win it. They just had to put two good games together.
They failed, though once again, a win was within their grasp. They led, again, going into period three. Game seven would have been in Vancouver, and perhaps impossible to win, but this game, game six, was going to be theirs. Then it wasn't.
Why? More than anything, because the Kings had reached their level, and they willed themselves to go no further. One guess as to why says that in their heads, making it this far was to have had a good season. They weren't expected to make the playoffs. They almost didn't, having a weak string of games in March. Getting this far was success.
Coming in, Vancouver was seeded third in the West. Most people didn't give the Kings much of a chance. This year, it was said, wasn't about winning the Stanley Cup for LA. It was about continuing to build something. Losing to later win, in other words, and that's exactly what the Kings settled for, so it's over.
So those of you casual sports fans, or non-hockey people, have a little heart this morning for your colleagues who seem down. They're Kings fans, and their problem isn't so much that their team lost as that, for them, it's back to real life. The playoffs will go on, but the games won't be local. Instead, they will represent the hopes of other fans in other cities. In LA, the passing of time will return to normal speed, Monday being followed by Friday, then the weekend, then Monday all over again.