The euphoria sweeping through Staples Center had reached record levels long before 20 poker faces retreated to the home dressing room as if they were dragging themselves to a hanging in Town Square. The Kings weren't celebrating their 3-0 series lead over the Devils on Monday for one reason:
They hadn't won four.
Southern California is quite familiar with championships, but it has been nearly two decades since fans were this wild about the Kings. A-list celebrities are showing up the way they do for the Lakers. Hockey has become hip again in Los Angeles with the Kings a win from winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in their 45-year history.
"Ever since I've been here, this place has been sold out," said winger Justin Williams, who was acquired in a trade from Carolina in 2009. "The fans are excited. I think they're just as excited as we are. This is a hockey town, but to make it a hockey town you have to win consistently. We want to instill something long-term here."
The long faces after a 4-0 victory over the Devils in Game Three was a product of none other than Darryl Sutter, the prickly coach with a firm hand and short fuse. He has about as much SoCal in his personality as a farm boy from Alberta, which makes sense because he is a farm boy from Alberta whose other life is growing feed and raising cattle.
In fact, when General Manager Dean Lombardi summoned him to take over for fired coach Terry Murray in December, Sutter agreed to accept the job under the condition he could spend a week tying up loose ends on his ranch before reporting for duty.
"I was in the barn," Sutter said Tuesday when asked of his wherabouts when Lombardi called him about the job. "I wasn't shoveling [expletive], but I had that [experience]."
Six months later, Los Angeles is on the verge of sweeping New Jersey for the title. Game Four is tonight in Staples Center.
The Kings have been successful because they have the horses, certainly, but also because they have effectively taken on the personality of their hard-working, no-nonsense coach.
Goaltender Jonathan Quick has been terrific all season. He lowered his goals-against average to 1.36 per game and raised his save percentage to .950 with a 22-save shutout in Game Three. Center Anze Kopitar is a star who is often overlooked while playing for the Kings on the West Coast. You could say the same for captain Dustin Brown.
Mike Richards and Jeff Carter were terrific for several years in Philadelphia before their reputation for partying and providing poor leadership led them out the door. Richards was traded to the Kings in a blockbuster deal last June. Carter was shipped out the same day and arrived at the NHL trade deadline via Columbus.
Drew Doughty is one of the best defensemen in the league and has drawn attention for the Conn Smythe Trophy, which is awarded to the most valuable player in the postseason. It's likely going to Quick assuming the Kings win another game. Los Angeles is very good defensively and has great depth.
All are needed to win it all.
But the Kings also found the ideal coach in Sutter, who spent eight years as a player with the Blackhawks and another 20 as a coach and never won a Stanley Cup. He had been working as the general manager before getting fired last season. He hadn't coached in six years before Lombardi asked him to take over a collection of underachievers.
In Sutter, the Kings hired a man whose style was in direct contrast of the man he replaced. Murray was a players' coach, a patient man with a gentle touch who was slow to reprimand his team. The Kings had plenty of talent but lacked competitive bite, which was why Murray was given his walking papers after 29 games.
Lombardi asked assistant coach John Stevens to keep the seat warm for four games until Sutter came aboard Dec. 20. Sutter arrived with the patience of a rattlesnake and about the same venom in his bite. He has no problem with bawling out players who aren't earning their keep or playing to standards that had redefined under his watch.
"It was a pretty big change, if you compared him to Terry Murray," Kopitar said after Game Three. "[Sutter's] a lot more intense. He's brought in an intensity to the locker room. He wanted to be more aggressive, keeping guys accountable. We've seen it time and time again when maybe some of the guys are not going, he's not afraid to sit them."
Sutter spent about six weeks evaluating his roster, concluded the Kings were too soft and promoted big rookies Jordan Nolan and Dwight King for more jam. He started working over Dustin Penner, the talented but inconsistent veteran forward. The Kings finally started playing they way they were capable and took the last playoff spot.
They also took off.
If the first series against Vancouver was an ambush by the eighth-seeded Kings, the second against St. Louis was a confidence-builder, the third against Phoenix a confirmation and the first two games in New Jersey a continuation, Game Three was an all-out dismantling that all but ended the series. Only the 1942 Maple Leafs have come back from 3-zip to win the Stanley Cup.
Sutter, 53, has been intense for decades, but behind the cold facial expressions and short and simple answers is a very good coach who does have a sense of humor under the right conditions. He just hasn't had much tolerance or time for clowning around when a Cup is on the line. And he knows three victories aren't enough.
Remember, he was coaching the Flames in 2004, when they had an opportunity to win the Cup at home, ended up losing on a goal that was disallowed and watched the Lightning win the seventh game in Tampa Bay.
The Kings have won 15 of 17 playoff games, including a record 10 consecutive road contests and held their opponents to two goals or fewer all but twice in the postseason. They have won three games in the Finals. All are accomplishments to be sure. But they've been slow to celebrate because they really haven't won anything.
Lord Stanley's Cup will be in Staples Center tonight along with fans who have waited 45 years for an NHL title, fans who want to see the spectacle, fans who want to be the spectacle, fans who climbed aboard to enjoy the ride. The Kings have four chances to win one game, four chances to become the first eighth seed to win it all.
If they do, trust me, they'll be smiling. And Sutter will lead a parade fit for a king.