Rebuilding a team goes beyond filling roster spots, past finding right-handed-shooting defensemen to pair with left-handed shooters and acquiring role players who fit alongside the franchise’s foundations.
When all goes right — and that’s rarely swift or sure — a rebuilt team naturally develops and rallies around an identity. Players live it, take pride in it. After struggling to end the steep decline that followed their two Stanley Cup championships the Kings have used their first postseason journey since 2018 to create a new identity, one they believe can define them for years to come.
Their resilience served them well during their first-round playoff series against Edmonton, allowing them to bounce back from a pair of two-goal losses and move within a game of winning the series. But the Oilers responded with some resilience of their own on Thursday, pulling out a 4-2 victory on a goal by Tyson Barrie from above the right circle with five minutes and 10 seconds left in the third period. An empty-net goal clinched the win for the Oilers.
The teams will decide the winner in Game 7 on Saturday, at Rogers Place in Edmonton. That team will advance to the second round against the winner of the Calgary-Dallas series, which Calgary leads 3-2.
Edmonton had built a 2-0 lead on an early wraparound by Connor McDavid in the first period and a deflection by Evander Kane early in the second period, but the Kings pushed back with a power-play goal by Sean Durzi late in the second period and Carl Grundstrom’s finish off a fine feed from Matt Roy 29 seconds into the third period. But McDavid and Draisaitl worked their magic to set up Barrie for the winner, creating the possibility that Kings forward Dustin Brown—who will retire after the season—had played his last home game for the team.
Despite losing defenseman Drew Doughty in March to season-ending wrist surgery and losing 20-goal scorer Viktor Arvidsson for the series to a lower-body injury, the Kings have outplayed the Oilers at key moments. While the Oilers reacted to the urgency of an elimination game by reconfiguring their lines to put superstars Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl together on Thursday, the Kings looked inward to their identity and preparedness.
“We know we’re going to get their best tonight. They’re going to play desperate. They’re going to do everything they can, so we’ve got to be ready for that,” Kings defenseman Alex Edler said. “We’ve got to play our game, execute our game.”
Edmonton also had to replace big-minutes defenseman Darnell Nurse, who was suspended a game for head-butting Kings center Phillip Danault during Game 5 on Tuesday in Edmonton. Kris Russell rejoined the lineup but he’s not as formidable a presence. The Kings again looked inward in response.
“They have very capable defensemen to put in the lineup, ones that have been waiting to get their opportunity and they’re going to be hungry,” McLellan said. “For us, we’re way more concerned about the players that are playing than the one that isn’t.”
McLellan’s moves have been uncanny. Defenseman Troy Stecher, acquired in March for a seventh-round draft pick and inserted into the lineup for Game 4, contributed a goal and an assist in each of Games 4 and 5. Winger Andreas Athanasiou, scratched for Game 4, scored a goal in Game 5. Winger Grundstrom, injured and unable to play Game 3, scored twice in Game 4.
“It’s amazing to see those guys pull through and have huge games for us,” winger Alex Iafallo said. “Those are massive goals and push us forward and give us momentum and stuff like that.”
Iafallo said he expected players to be calm on Thursday in the face of being able to close out the series. A seventh game, if necessary, would be played on Saturday in Edmonton.
“I feel like it’s kind of what we’ve been talking about this whole series, just sticking together,” Iafallo said. “Obviously you’re going to get pumped up before the game but you’ve got to channel it the right way and take every shift like it’s your last and make sure that you have more positives than mistakes.”
The Kings will come out ahead in some ways no matter the outcome. They’ve discovered what they have in terms of talent and in character, and they know that coming up with a semi-decent power play and average penalty killing could make them a Cup threat. They’ve had no pressure.
Not so for the Oilers, who were heavy favorites. Edmonton revolves around superstars but hasn’t been able to complete what should be the easier phase of assembling a team: finding reliable goaltending and a solid supporting cast. The NHL announced Thursday that McDavid is a finalist for the Hart Trophy as most valuable player, an award he has won twice. But since he was drafted No. 1 in 2015 the Oilers have one won playoff series, in 2017. Fans and media are restless.
McLellan, who coached the Oilers from 2015-16 through the first 20 games of 2018-19, knows the duress the Oilers face. “Maybe I’m the only one that can speak to this because I’ve lived their bench and now I’m living our bench. It’s completely different,” he said.
“Our pressure is what we put on ourselves. Their pressure is, it’s enormous throughout Oil Country and Canada and the superstars and the media pressure and where they’ve been and what they want to do. A lot of people that have followed this series have used [the term] house money, and we don’t see it that way. But it also creates a different set of pressure points for each organization, I believe.”
The Kings’ pressure point was on a comfortable setting. “We’re going to take advantage of our internal pressure, the pressure that we put when we look at each other in the locker room, the expectations that we have for each other. That’s what we want to take advantage of,” McLellan said. “We can’t control what happens with their group.”
They’ve done well to control their course and create a new identity they can build upon, whether this season or soon after.