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NHL PLAYOFFS

New Luc, New Look

Robitaille Convinced Kings Can End Their Eight-Year Drought in Playoffs

April 11, 2001|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — Luc Robitaille couldn't have known what would happen, that after the Kings had won the first game of the Stanley Cup finals against the Montreal Canadiens at the Montreal Forum on June 1, 1993, they would not win another game in that series.

Or another playoff game.

He had scored two goals in the Kings' series-opening 4-1 victory in his hometown and had been named the first star of the game, granting him the cherished privilege of twirling around the ice when his achievement was announced. The Kings, riding the emotion of a seven-game conference-final series victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs, had beaten the Canadiens in their own building. They had momentum and energy and destiny on their side.

Or so it seemed.

How could Robitaille have known Marty McSorley would be caught with a rule-violating stick in Game 2, leading to a power play the Canadiens capitalized on to tie the score and win in overtime? Or that Montreal would win the next three games and plunge the Kings into a downturn that took them years to escape?

How could he have known such things would happen?

"I didn't think I'd get traded a year later, or that the Kings would miss the playoffs the next four, five years in a row," said Robitaille, the only current King who played on the 1993 Cup runner-up team.

Since that spring day when the Stanley Cup was wrested from the Kings in three overtime losses and a 4-1 rout in the finale, their fortunes have changed dramatically. So have Robitaille's.

Exiled to Pittsburgh and then to New York in July 1994, he returned in 1997 to a team that was still undergoing a painful rebuilding process. The Kings had missed the playoffs in 1993-94, 1994-95, 1995-96--after they'd traded Wayne Gretzky, who had requested the chance to play for a contender--and again in 1996-97. They were swept out of the 1997-1998 playoffs by the St. Louis Blues, missed the playoffs in 1998-99--which led to the departure of coach Larry Robinson--and were swept out of the playoffs again last year, by the Detroit Red Wings.

That's 12 consecutive playoff losses for the Kings, who will try to end that streak today when they open their first-round series against the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena. Of those club-record 12 consecutive playoff losses, they have held leads in only two: against the Canadiens, 2-1, in Game 2 of the 1993 finals before McSorley's excessively curved stick was detected and the Canadiens scored during a two-man advantage, and against the Blues, 3-0, in Game 3 of their 1998 series. That lead vanished when Sean O'Donnell was assessed a five-minute major penalty, and the Blues scored four times for a 4-3 victory.

The losing streak is one record the Kings would prefer to forget. Robitaille, however, believes it's not as awful as it sounds.

"Everybody talks about how we haven't won a playoff game in a long time, but we've played only two playoff series," he said. "It's one of those situations that I couldn't care less about. I look at this year and the way we're playing. This is a different team than last year and three or four years ago.

"We've got Felix [Potvin] in net. We've got gritty guys on defense. We've got gritty guys up front, guys we didn't have before. We have guys who do their jobs, like Scott Thomas, who works real hard and can put the puck in the net. Unless you have guys on the fourth line who can score goals, you're not going to win."

Robitaille, who had 37 goals this season and ranks 13th in NHL history with 590, has climbed near the top of every King playoff list. His 81 games played rank second to the 92 played by Dave Taylor, he leads goal scorers with 37, is second in assists with 45, behind Gretzky's 65, and is second in points with 82, behind Gretzky's 94. Those totals include two goals and four points against the Red Wings last spring, when he was one of the few Kings who produced under pressure.

But last year might as well be ancient history to Robitaille.

"Last year, we [stunk]," he said. "We didn't play well. We want to play better this time, and we think we can give them a battle. Last year, the biggest difference was special teams. We didn't score on the power play [in 23 chances] and we have to work especially hard at that. . . .

"We believe we can go far. We believe we can beat them."

Ending the playoff losing streak, he said, is not important psychologically or in any other way except that a victory will bring the Kings one step closer to winning the series.

"Nobody cares [about the streak]," he said. "I'm the only one left. It's a great story for you [reporters]. It's great for fans. But to me, it doesn't matter. I'm not looking at the past. It's this year I'm looking forward to. I like our goaltending and I like the way our team is playing. We're geared to win 2-1 games, and those are the kind of games you play in the playoffs.

"I expect to win more than one game. I'm here to win the series. I think we can beat them. It's going to be a war. It's going to be real hard. But every guy on this team has played so well. Guys understand their roles and we believe we can do it."

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