Willie Mitchell had a simple explanation for another heart-stopping, house-rocking overtime win by the Los Angeles Kings.
"Rope-a-dope," Mitchell cracked Saturday night shortly after the Kings beat the Rangers 5-4 in double overtime of Game 2 in the Stanley Cup Final.
Then he quickly set the record straight: "We're not saying that. Trust me."
But the reference was quite appropriate coming from Mitchell. He is the one player on the Kings who is actually old enough to have been alive when Muhammad Ali was still champion. At 37, he is the elder statesman, and his words and experience have extra impact for the Kings, even though he doesn't wear a letter on his sweater.
When the Kings won it all in 2012, captain Dustin Brown's first order of business after celebrating with the Cup was to hand it to Mitchell. It was a nod to Mitchell's long journey to his first championship, which included overcoming a serious concussion.
To give the Kings a 2-0 series lead against the Rangers, it was Mitchell setting up Brown for the winning goal at 10:26 of the second overtime. The Kings mounted a good forecheck and worked the puck back to Mitchell at the left point. He uncorked a shot that Brown deflected from the slot to beat goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
That capped the Kings' comeback from deficits of 2-0, 3-1 and 4-2, which was the count heading into the third period. Goals from Dwight King and Marian Gaborik then forced overtime. The Kings had also spotted the Rangers a 2-0 lead in Game 1, just as they had in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals in Chicago.
"Quite honestly we're not happy with how we started these two games at all," Mitchell said. "It's the Stanley Cup Final and you know everyone in this room cares so much. We just haven't executed well in the first half of the games. It baffles all of us. It's not a place that we want to be climbing out of all the time. Sooner or later it's going to bite you on the ass. The great part about it is that we find a way to battle back. We have some work to do."
In addition to assisting on Brown's winner, Mitchell also scored a power-play goal late in the second period to cut the Rangers' lead to 3-2. But on the ensuing shift, Mitchell had trouble with the puck behind the Kings' net, and Derick Brassard quickly re-established the two-goal cushion for New York.
"You don't want to give up a goal like that, especially when you feel like you got a big goal to get back in the hockey game," Mitchell said.
But the reputation of resilience that the Kings have earned during this playoff run -- hard to believe they were down 3-0 in the opening series against San Jose -- is something that Mitchell has done personally. He missed all of last season with a knee injury, and his absence was a factor in the Kings' falling short to Chicago in the conference finals in 2013.
"We missed him last year," Brown said. "It changes the dynamic of the back end. He makes a very big difference with his defensive coverage and PK. He's very hard to play against down low. Tonight you get the bonus with him finding a way to make a difference on the offensive side of the puck. But his bread and butter is down low and PK."
Mitchell sacrificed his usual offseason indulgence to work his way back into the lineup.
"I had a plan to get healthy," he said. "I stayed down here for the summer instead of going home and fishing like I normally do. When your plan works and you come back healthy and get to be a part of this, sure, it feels good."
Given his age and the circumstances, Mitchell might have an extra dose of urgency for the Kings to complete this championship run.
"It won't be any type of success for us if we don't get two more wins," he said. "If we don't, we feel like it would be a missed opportunity because we have a good team."
Another example of how much of a team effort it has been for the Kings is that their eight goals in the Final against the Rangers have come from eight players. The fact that Mitchell was one of them is quite the rarity. In 795 regular-season games, Mitchell has zero power-play goals.
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