There were brief moments on Saturday night at the sold out Rogers Place in Edmonton where the Los Angeles Kings looked like the two-time Stanley Cup Champions of the last decade. Certainly goalie Jonathan Quick looked every bit like the veteran Conn Smythe Trophy winner from 2012.
Unfortunately for the Kings, those moments were few and far between. For a majority of the game L.A. looked every bit like the underdog in the first round matchup with Edmonton, forced to try and stop onslaught after onslaught by the vaunted Oilers offense.
Ultimately, by the time the final bell rang signaling the end of the third period, the Kings were unable to extend their season any further. After the loss, they found themselves in a familiar place: unable to advance passed the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the eighth consecutive season.
The 2-0 loss to the Oilers in Game 7 sent the Kings to Cancun earlier than anyone wanted, forced to now pick up the pieces of a disappointing end to the season, while simultaneously continuing the rebuild that brought them back to the postseason for the first time since 2018.
Entering the winter-take-all Game 7 in Edmonton, the team that scored first went on to win every game of the series. Both teams did their best to try and strike first in the first period, each with multiple scoring chances, but the scoreless first 20 minutes put more pressure on the home team, and kept the Kings' confidence high entering the second.
For most of the second period, it was much of the same, the tension inside Rogers Place was palpable, each and every time Edmonton came close to breaking through fans held their breath in excitement, but somehow Quick managed to thwart all comers, until the exhale finally came with just 6:45 left in the second.
The Kings were hoping to survive another frantic offensive attack from the Oilers when team MVP Connor McDavid passed up an opportunity for another wraparound goal like he had in Game 6, instead finding a streaking Cody Ceci whose one-timer found open space on the far right side of the net for the game's first goal.
In a game full of "almosts," things finally turned towards the favor of the home team. The Oliers, who were the higher-seeded team during the regular season, not to mention heavy favorites entering the series, had finally broken through. With fortune in their favor with the team that scored first in the series, they only needed to hang on for 20 more minutes to have a chance at facing the nearby rival Calgary Flames in the semifinals.
The Kings hung around for most of the third period, but it was McDavid again, who sealed the victory with a tremendous backhand goal with 3:53 remaining in the game. The insurance goal was easily one of the biggest goals in McDavid's young career.
Regardless of the outcome, it was NHL fans that were the real winners following the series. The Oilers and Kings first round series was full of drama, intrigue, and wild momentum swings. After the Kings stole Game 1 in Edmonton, the Oilers outscored L.A. 14-2 in Games 2 and 3 to take a 2-1 series lead.
But the Kings bounced back at home in Game 4, Quick carried them to a 4-0 shutout that leveled the series, and they rode that momentum into Game 5 in Edmonton where Adrian Kempe's overtime goal lifted L.A. to a 5-4 victory, pushing the Oilers to the brink of elimination.
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The inexperienced Oilers didn't flinch however in Game 6 in Los Angeles. Even when their 2-0 lead collapsed, and the Kings came back to tie it late in the third period, the Oilers dug deep to get the victory and send the series back to Rogers Place for Game 7.
In total, five of the eight first round series of the Stanley Cup Playoffs reached a Game 7; a huge win for hockey.
Despite the loss, Quick was sensational, stopping 39 shots. His counterpart, Mike Smith made 29 saves.
The biggest difference in the game was the vast different in shots on goal. The Oilers outshot the Kings nearly two-to-one, 41 to 29.
At the forefront of the Kings future is how they will move forward without longtime captain Dustin Brown. The 20-year veteran announced his retirement before the playoffs began. Brown will likely lead a large void in the locker room as many young players on the roster have admitted they've turned to Brown for advice and guidance throughout the years.
Other tough decisions will have to be made by the Kings' front office as well. The team has eight unrestricted free agents including Olli Maata, Alexander Edler, Troy Stetcher, and Andreas Athanasiou, whose head's up play in the second period saved a goal. Game 5 hero Adrian Kempe is a restricted free agent, and it seems highly unlikely the Kings let him go.
Regardless, now that the Kings have returned to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and nearly upset the Oilers in the first round, the future of the rebuild looks bright for the Kings.