By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Since being founded in 1967 as part of the National Hockey League's first major expansion, the Los Angeles Kings have travelled a long and winding road where very little has come easily to them.
More often than not, they would frustrate their loyal fans by producing plenty of impressive plays during the regular season before failing to reach the postseason, or making an early playoff exit if they ever got that far.
Over the past three years, though, the Kings have established themselves as one of the league's most resilient teams with a never-say-die approach, winning the Stanley Cup for the first time in 2012 and returning to the finals this season.
The only thing which has not changed is their apparent inability to make things easy, the Kings having become the first NHL team ever to win three Game Sevens en route to the Stanley Cup Finals.
"We definitely don't make it easier on ourselves, that's for sure," Kings center Anze Kopitar smiled sheepishly after his team clinched the Western Conference title on Sunday with a stunning 5-4 overtime victory over the Blackhawks in Chicago.
Kopitar and his team mates have fittingly deserved the nickname 'Kings of the Comeback' after repeatedly defying the odds and fighting their way out of seemingly lost causes.
Two years ago, the Kings delivered a stunning Cinderella story as they beat the West's top three seeds in the playoffs en route to becoming the first eighth seed ever to win a Stanley Cup.
This season, they clawed their way back from a 0-3 hole against the San Jose Sharks to scrape through the first round of the playoffs in seven games, then came from 2-3 down against the Ducks to reach the conference final.
Los Angeles then booked their place in the Stanley Cup Finals by ousting the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks after squandering a 3-1 series lead and then coming back from deficits of 0-2, 2-3 and 3-4 in Sunday's decisive Game Seven.
"You look back over the six, seven years this group has been together, we have a lot of things like that, that we've done and we were able to accomplish together," Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick said of his team's uncanny ability to fight back.
"It's a great group to be part of. I feel very fortunate to be with these guys.
"Obviously our journey's not done yet, so we have a lot of work here coming up," said Quick, who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player during the 2012 playoffs.
TOP DEFENSIVE TEAM
The Kings, who were the NHL's top defensive team during the regular season, will take on the New York Rangers for the Stanley Cup, with the opening game of the best-of-seven finals taking place in Los Angeles on Wednesday.
Kings head coach Darryl Sutter knows his team will face yet another difficult and bruising challenge as they aim for a second taste of hockey's Holy Grail.
"Great goaltending. Great defense. Great forwards. Great special teams," Sutter said of the Rangers.
"We're up against it again. We're going to try and beat New York, then we'll be really special," he added with a smile.
Ice hockey in the sunny surrounds of Southern California has certainly come a long way since the Kings began playing at their first home venue, The Forum in Inglewood, in 1967 before they moved to the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles in 1999.
Former players such as Rogie Vachon, Marcel Dionne and Luc Robitaille have all flourished while wearing the team's original purple-and-gold colors but it was the arrival of "The Great One", Wayne Gretzky, that really got things moving.
Gretzky was traded to the Kings from the Edmonton Oilers in 1988 and did more than anyone else to popularize hockey in California during his eight seasons with the club, when the team colors had been switched to silver and black.
Under his influence, the Kings clinched their first and only divisional title in 1991 and two years later they won their first Western Conference title but lost to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Though the club endured a lean spell for the next 15 years, the arrival of players such as Quick, Kopitar, right wings Justin Williams, Dustin Brown and Marian Gaborik, center Jeff Carter and defenseman Drew Doughty has helped the Kings find a successful formula.
"Within the past few years, we've tried to earn the respect of the league," said Williams. "L.A. is not just a place to come and play a hockey game and work on your tan.
"It's a tough loop in California right now to play. We want to put L.A. on the map, and put it significantly on the map with regard to hockey."
(This story clarifies in 18th para that Kings colors were initially purple and gold)
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Julian Linden)