Although Dustin Brown will always remember raising the Stanley Cup above his head last year, he also remembers the pain of a first-round playoff loss to San Jose one year before the Los Angeles Kings became champions.
So even though the Los Angeles captain is playing in his first Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs tonight, he’s acutely aware of the stakes when the Kings host the Sharks in the grand finale to a grueling all-California series.
“You don’t know what you’re playing for until you’ve won it,” Brown said Monday after the Kings returned from a 2-1 loss in Game 6.
“So my perspective on the playoffs this year has been completely different from my perspectives the previous years, because I don’t think I fully understood what exactly I was playing for until we put ourselves over the top.”
For the first time in two years, the Kings are one game away from playoff elimination. They never even faced a potential elimination game during their 16-4 rampage to the Cup last year, but the Sharks have pushed them to the brink while moving one win away from their third trip to the Western Conference finals in four years.
The home team has won every game in the series, although home ice meant little to the Kings last season while winning the title as an eighth seed.
They’re hoping the Staples Center ice means everything in Game 7 — and it has been awfully friendly lately, with 13 consecutive home victories over the past two months and seven straight home playoff wins dating to last year’s Cup clincher.
Although the Kings and Sharks are separated by just a 45-minute flight, the home team has dominated this series lately, winning all four regular-season meetings as well.
In fact, the home team has won 15 of the clubs’ past 16 meetings in the past two seasons.
“I guess the odds are on our side, but we know anything can happen,” Kings center Anze Kopitar said. “Everyone wants to win these types of games, and you want to be the hero.”
After three wins apiece, the series has ended up just as both teams expected before it began two weeks ago. Neither team can pull away, with goaltending and special teams largely deciding each matchup.
Although the series has been tight throughout, it hasn’t been disproportionately dramatic. The team scoring the first goal has won every game of the series, and only one major comeback has been made: Los Angeles scored two power-play goals in the final minutes to steal Game 2 after blowing an early two-goal lead.
The Sharks forced Game 7 by winning three of the series’ past four games, all by a 2-1 margin. While the Kings can rely on their championship pedigree, San Jose has momentum and plenty of veteran experience.
“It’s definitely a stressful situation, but it’s the most fun I’ve had playing hockey,” said Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle, who has won a Game 7 three times in his career, including a Stanley Cup win with Tampa Bay in 2004.
“I’ve got to do it three times now. It’s the best time to play. I just try not to make it a bigger deal than what it actually is. Go out and enjoy it. Just don’t overthink it, or it can get the best of you.”
With the Kings’ brand-new Stanley Cup banner hanging over the Staples Center ice, it’s easy to forget the Sharks have been in countless pressure-packed playoff situations, even if they’ve never won the Cup.
San Jose is hoping to extend its ninth straight playoff appearance into another conference final run, while the Kings had won just one playoff round in 17 seasons before last summer’s phenomenal championship run.
The Sharks played a Game 7 two years ago, beating Detroit at home in the second round, and their veteran newcomers have been there, too: San Jose’s Scott Gomez is about to play in the 10th Game 7 of his career.
“The main thing is that you can’t change your game,” Gomez said. “Do what got you here. Obviously, emotions are going to be running high. Family, friends, everyone — all eyes are on it. The team that can control (emotions) the most, and it sounds easier than it is, usually that’s the team that has success.”
The Kings have home-ice advantage in a playoff series for the first time in 21 years against the Sharks, who have made the playoffs 14 times in the past 15 seasons. Los Angeles hasn’t played a Game 7 on home ice since 1989, when Wayne Gretzky’s Kings knocked the Edmonton Oilers out of the first round.
After an optional skate Monday, the Kings uniformly downplayed the importance of home ice in Game 7 beyond their crowd’s support, yet they’ve been awfully tough to beat at Staples during their title defense. They lost just four times in regulation during the regular season.
Many of the Kings’ top players will be in their first Game 7 in the NHL — including Kopitar, Brown and goalie Jonathan Quick — although most have played in similarly crucial games in junior hockey and international competition.
“The worst thing going into a Game 7 is being uptight and stressed about it,” Brown said. “You should be excited to play in a game like tomorrow night. That’s where heroes are made.”
Kopitar’s favorite Game 7 memory comes from watching his father, Matjaz, who scored two goals and added another in a shootout to claim a national title back home in Slovenia.
“I’ve got blood under my skin just like a Canadian,” Kopitar said. “I don’t think it’s any different over in Europe, either. Everybody wants to be in these types of games, and you want to raise the level of play, and eventually you want to be the hero in these types of games.”