Willie Mitchell of the Kings battles for position with Adam Henrique of… (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles…)
Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell has played 719 regular-season games, making his NHL debut with the New Jersey Devils in 2000 and appearing in his first playoff game in 2003 with the Minnesota Wild.
Mitchell, one of the most accommodating and affable players in the league, was trying to keep a tight rein on his feelings in the hours before Game 4 on Wednesday night.
"It's a lot of emotion, and not trying to get away from it, to be honest, but it's only human nature," he said, chatting with a small group of reporters after the morning skate. "On the off day, you just think about the long journey. You think about when you started hockey at age 3 or 4, moving away from home at the age of 15 to pursue a career in the National Hockey League, that was the ultimate. And win a Stanley Cup."
He used the words "pretty surreal" to describe the Kings' run.
A concussion threatened Mitchell's career as recently as two years ago when he was with the Vancouver Canucks. He couldn't read or drive his car and retreated to his cabin in remote British Columbia to recover and escape from questions about his future.
It was clear Mitchell was already feeling emotional Wednesday morning. "You try to nip it in the bud a little bit, embrace it but not let it consume you," he said. "Once it's game day, it's pretty easy till you get these questions."
The Devils put former Ducks forward Petr Sykora in the lineup for Game 4, along with defenseman Henrik Tallinder. Coming out were forward Jacob Josefson and former Kings defenseman Peter Harrold.
Sykora, who had been scratched for the previous six playoff games, has scored eight career goals in the Stanley Cup Final, playing for the Ducks and the Devils. He won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2000.
In 15 playoff games this spring, he had two goals and four points for the Devils. Tallinder had not appeared in a game since Jan. 17 because of a blood clot in his leg. New Jersey Coach Peter DeBoer explained the reasoning behind the move.
"Peter Harrold played great, gave us some good minutes," DeBoer said. "The reality is Tallinder was a top-two defenseman for us, was all year. He's been out for a long time. This is the first time in the last four or five days where we felt in practice that he was up to game speed and a legitimate option.
"We considered it after Game 2, but our group, I thought, had played such a good game that I didn't want to change it then. But now it seems appropriate."
Said Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador of Tallinder: "I think you see experience, and obviously he's been missed in our lineup. Plays big minutes, a lot of minutes. He handles the puck really well and moves it.
"I think it's nice to see him overcome what he has and be in the position that he's able to play. I think he went through a little bit of uncertainty there."
The Kings went 9-2-3 to close the regular season, and that got them into the playoffs. They had a six-game winning streak in that stretch, five victories coming against teams that made the playoffs.
"That, in its own, was playoff experience," Kings President and General Manager Dean Lombardi said. "It was a test of character. Those were really hard games. It wasn't just [goaltender] Jonathan Quick, it wasn't just a couple of guys, they all came together with intensity. They were clearly on a mission."
Wall of fame
Bob Wall, the Kings' first captain, was a pregame introduction Wednesday. He remembers the Kings' establishing a reputation right away.
"We had only a few guys who had played in the NHL, but early in the season we beat Montreal," Wall said. "Then we went back to Montreal and beat them there. It was like telling the league, 'Hey, we're for real here.'"