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STANLEY CUP FINALS : Kings Stay Loose as They Prepare for New Chapter : Game 1: They are seemingly carefree, in contrast to the Canadiens, entering the championship series.


MONTREAL — They always say the 24th Stanley Cup is the hardest one to win.

Just kidding.

The Montreal Canadiens, appearing in their 35th Stanley Cup finals, have their fabled history to support them as they try to win No. 24, starting here tonight against the Kings.

About all the Kings and Canadiens have in common is the name of their respective arenas--the Forum. The Kings have no storied past, other than a few banners and two retired numbers on the wall at the Forum. The Kings are creating their past right now.

A few weeks ago, it was a big deal for the Kings to play in May. Now they are the boys of June in their first Stanley Cup finals, the days of May part of franchise lore.

Here, it's not such a bad idea to travel light. The Kings, without the baggage of great expectations, are unfettered and had people buzzing about their carefree approach during a news conference at the La Mise au Jeu restaurant on Monday.

It was quite a contrast to the constrained atmosphere at the Canadiens' news conference. Montreal Coach Jacques Demers, although cordial, appeared tense to those who have followed him during his years in St. Louis, Detroit and Montreal. He coached King Coach Barry Melrose in Cincinnati of the old World Hockey Assn.

Earlier, King owner Bruce McNall, left wing Luc Robitaille, Melrose, center Wayne Gretzky and defenseman Marty McSorley entertained the crowded room from their dais. Robitaille jokingly offered to translate McNall's comments from English to French. Melrose built up McSorley as "the best defenseman in the NHL." Then McNall started handing over his bulging money clip to McSorley. Gretzky laughed.

"The only difference in L.A. is that most you (of) guys will meet movie stars," Melrose told the media. "But that's OK. . . . It's a good group."

The last time the Kings and Gretzky were here, in February, they were in the depths of a three-month slump and lost, 7-2.

Then came the All-Star game a few days later, and Gretzky was answering questions about his seemingly tenuous future and a rumor that had him being traded to Toronto.

On that trip, Gretzky had dinner with Melrose and assistant coach Cap Raeder in Quebec City and asked them if he was embarrassing the King organization. Melrose and Raeder said the right things and urged patience, and Gretzky found his way out of the slump, starting with a 3-0 victory over Vancouver on Feb. 15.

Less than four months later, Gretzky arrived in Montreal, coming off his biggest victory as a King. His winning goal in overtime of Game 6 and four-point performance during Game 7 of the Campbell Conference finals against Toronto has everyone talking about his greatness again.

"When you accomplish something, everybody wants to see you do it again," said Gretzky, who has 13 goals and 20 assists in 19 playoff games. "They don't believe it. That's the attitude I have: 'I can do it once and I can do it again.' You've got to do whatever you can to motivate yourself.

"My whole career I've had to prove myself again and again. I was too small, too slow. In L.A., I had never done anything."

That last challenge fell by the rinkside, no matter what the Kings do in the finals.

The message is clear to the Canadiens: Once again, to stop the Kings you have to stop Gretzky.

"When they were in trouble, he came through," Demers said.

Said forward Mike Keane: "Everyone on the ice can't worry about Gretzky."

After all, Gretzky is the master at creating opportunities for others, not only himself. The Canadiens, a balanced and disciplined team, are superb at taking away chances in the slot and are planning to counter Gretzky with a line featuring Kirk Muller centering Keane and left wing John LeClair.

Muller is from the same hometown, Kingston, Canada, as Toronto center Doug Gilmour, and has many of the same two-way skills. He was assigned to shut down Quebec's Joe Sakic, Buffalo's Pat LaFontaine and the New York Islanders' Pierre Turgeon during the Canadiens' three previous series, in which they lost only three games and earned two eight-day breaks.

"I have to be at the top of my game to compete against him (Gretzky)," Muller said. "I'm going to need some help from my teammates."

Gretzky has hit almost every mark he has aimed for during his NHL career. Now, the goal of bringing a Stanley Cup to Los Angeles is one series away.

He has waited almost five years. McNall and long-suffering King fans have held on for 26 years, and all they have between themselves and the Cup are four more King victories.

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