My appreciation for sports goes deeper than just the athleticism put on display on a nightly basis. I admire the mental determination as much anything else.
This year’s version of the Los Angeles Kings is a perfect example.
The Kings opened the Stanley Cup playoffs against the San Jose Sharks, and promptly fell into a 3-0 hole. Keep in mind, the Sharks hadn’t lost four straight in regulation all season, and only three teams had ever come back from such a playoff series deficit.
That didn’t even enter the minds of the Kings. They promptly reeled off four consecutive wins, claiming the finale in San Jose.
Their reward? A date with Anaheim, who won a league-tying high 54 games. Another grueling seven game series ensued and another clincher on the road, setting up a battle with the defending-champion Chicago Blackhawks. Los Angeles jumped to a 3-1 series lead, only to watch the Hawks show their mental metal by winning back-to-back games and force a Game 7.
The Kings had to come back three times before securing the win in overtime, courtesy of Rochester, MI native Alec Martinez. With the win, the Kings became the first club in history to win three Game 7s on the road. They are now 7-0 in elimination games this year, and they own home-ice advantage, even though they may not necessarily want it. You don’t get to this point if your team isn’t strong in body AND mind.
Most fans, and maybe even some players, would have had a severe change in body language after “blowing a 3-1 series lead” and then fall behind 2-0 in the early stages of the finale. Not the Kings. This team showed incredible resolve and belief in itself. It stuck to its system and game plan, winning in overtime. It gets incredible durability and leadership from its captains: Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty. It gets superb clutch performances from guys like Justin Williams and Jeff Carter. It has gotten rejuvenated focus from a guy like Marian Gaborik, and it has seen youngsters grow up in Tyler Toffoli and Jake Muzzin.
It’s always amazed me how we focus so much on a player’s ability to throw, catch, shoot, skate or block, but we easily overlook their ability to take it a game at a time.
It’s a cliché for us, but it’s a necessary ingredient for athletes. We need to appreciate how athletes are able to focus on the moment and forget about the past (if it’s negative). It’s what puts them in such an elite class. The Kings showed that this year.
Remember, this team is just two years removed from its first and only Stanley Cup title, but that year they led every team 3-0 and won 16 of the 20 games they played in the post season.
They will have played 21 games before they even drop the puck for Game 1 of the SC Finals, but considering what this team has been through, I won’t doubt them. They are too tough -- physically and mentally.