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Stanley Cup FINALS : Finding the Silver (and Black) Lining to Kings' Season : Highlights: Melrose and Gretzky found ways to get team at its peak at the right time.


Trying to figure out what the regular season meant to the Kings is almost like searching for an Easter egg . . . in July.

It meant almost nothing. The Kings of those days look nothing like the Kings of June. All they had to do was qualify for the playoffs.

"The regular season is like spring training," Coach Barry Melrose said.

Actually, there was a three-month stretch during the middle of the season when the Kings looked like a team on the first day of spring training.

This was after they opened the season 20-8-3 and almost threatened to overtake Pittsburgh for the NHL's overall lead.

After their midseason free fall, the Kings snapped out of their lull late in the season and finished with only six losses in their final 21 games.

Nevertheless, there were some turning points during the Kings' skittish season, several games that stand out as salient moments, among them:


Kings vs. Red Wings, Nov. 27, at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit: The Kings were without five regulars: Defenseman Marty McSorley (one-game suspension), Tomas Sandstrom (broken arm), Jim Hiller (strained lower back), Dave Taylor (concussion) and Wayne Gretzky, who was out indefinitely with a herniated thoracic disk. Defenseman Darryl Sydor injured his hip on an open door on the team's bench late in the second period and did not return.

And Detroit had scored 28 goals in its last three games.

Kings 5, Red Wings 3.

McSorley was so pleased by what he saw on the ice, he rushed into the dressing room to congratulate his teammates, particularly the line of Mike Donnelly-Corey Millen-Tony Granato, which combined for nine points.

"That night, I had the opportunity to stand back and remove myself," he said. "Some of the guys got whacked around, the little guys took a beating, but we still won. I was very proud of my teammates at the time.

"I was in a box with Eddie Mio and his friends for the first period, and then I stood behind our net for the second. I wanted to let them know I was proud."

Melrose, a former Red Wing player and minor league coach in their organization, had a victory in his first NHL game as a coach in Detroit. It was a special moment for him.

"When we beat Detroit, it definitely said we had something special," he said.

"You know what, after the game, Paul Coffey picked up the puck and gave it to me. He said: 'You might want this.' "


Kings vs. Montreal Canadiens, Dec. 8, at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, in Phoenix:

Few would have guessed this was a preview to the Stanley Cup final. But it was an excellent, well-paced game for December.

The Kings felt it went about eight minutes too long as left wing Vincent Damphousse scored three times in the final 7:40 to pull the Canadiens to a 5-5 tie.

It also happened to coincide with Gretzky's resumption of skating, albeit light skating. The tie marked the beginning of the three-month drought as the Kings won eight of their next 34 games.

They had losses in which they gave up 10 goals--to Philadelphia and Washington. And they lost two times to San Jose and two times to Tampa Bay. Each low point seemed to be followed by yet another cruel blow.

"It was hard because I'm such a positive person," Melrose said. "There was the Philly game. There were so many bad games I can't remember.

"We lost, 8-3, to the Rangers, after being tied 3-3 going into the third. That was probably the worst night of all. You're a little bit wacky, not crazy."

Did he blow up that night at the Kings?

"It was not a crazy blowup, but a wacky blowup," he said.


Kings vs. Vancouver Canucks, Feb. 15, the Forum:

Any light at the end of the tunnel?

Even if the Kings' 3-0 victory over the Canucks in a rare afternoon game gave them only a flashlight in the dark tunnel, they were ready to take any sign of progress.

"It seems as if this team hit rock bottom a few times," Melrose said. "It's like a foam bottom."

Goaltender Kelly Hrudey had a strange day. He recorded his second shutout of the season and 15th in his career against a team that had not been shut out since since Dec. 3, 1991, against Quebec.

Minutes afterward, the team circulated a release announcing the acquisition of Rick Knickle from the San Diego Gulls of the International Hockey League. The move would greatly shake up all three goaltenders--Hrudey, Robb Stauber and Knickle--starting a three-ring circus and pushing all three to a higher level.

The game was also important for Gretzky, even though he did not score and extended his goal-less streak to 16 consecutive games. He discarded his back brace for the first time and started to regain his jump and speed. One game later, the results started to show when Gretzky scored a goal and had five points in a 10-5 victory at Minnesota.


Kings vs. Buffalo Sabres, March 15, the Auditorium, in Buffalo, N.Y. and Kings vs. Winnipeg Jets, March 16, the Forum:

These games should be considered an entry. The Kings were caught in the ferocious Eastern blizzard and the weather problems forced them to play back-to-back games on consecutive days in Buffalo and Los Angeles.

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