LOS ANGELES - Dean Lombardi began to worry on the day before Game 4.
The way people were talking to him. The way they were congratulating him almost everywhere he went. The vibe he felt around his town more than around his team.
It didn't seem to matter the place or the circumstance. And he wondered aloud, if this was happening to him, imagine what it's been like for his young Los Angeles Kings.
Not that he wasn't worried before, but this was different.
He loves using that word -- "young" -- when he talks about this team.
"They're just kids, and when you have kids, you naturally worry about them," said Lombardi, the general manager of the Los Angeles Kings.
But the kids weren't necessarily the problem around the team.
The issue, as Lombardi saw it, was that the celebration began before the Kings won the Stanley Cup. That was last Tuesday.
People were acting like the Kings had already won the Cup. Only they haven't won a game since then in the Stanley Cup final, a series that has gone from sure-thing to toss up, from dull and unemotional to intense and dramatic, with Game 6 approaching Monday night.
The distraction, from friends, from family, from well wishers, was more than apparent.
Now it is nervous time. Now it's another opportunity for captain Dustin Brown to be presented the Stanley Cup.
It's another opportunity with the mood altered, the series very much in doubt, the comeback of the New Jersey Devils seemingly real, and with Los Angeles having emotionally swung from premature celebration to genuine concern.
No one could have seen Game 7 coming heading into Game 4 at the Staples Center. Now no one would be surprised if the final went the limit for the second consecutive season.
The New Jersey Devils, the Kings have found, are a lot like gum stuck to the bottom of your running shoes. They are annoying and a little bit sticky and increasingly difficult to get rid of. And while they may not be in the heads of the young Kings, they have certainly made an impression.
The Devils have imposed their will on the series, just as they did in previous rounds against Philadelphia and the New York Rangers. The difference this round is they waited until they were down three games to demonstrate what got them here. And now that they've announced their arrival, they don't seem to be going away so quickly.
The big test for the Kings, who have really not been tested in the playoffs, is how they react now.
They breezed through Vancouver, St. Louis and Phoenix. Not once in those series was the result in doubt. They took command early -- as they did in the final -- and never took their foot off the gas. Doubt was not part of the vocabulary.
"But this is the best team we've faced," said Brown.
The Kings keep saying that. And that admission alone may speak to the genuine uncertainty of the Los Angeles team. They never spent a moment doubting themselves in the first three rounds of the playoffs, winning 12 of 14 games in an almost unprecedented run.
Then they reeled off three wins in a row to start the Cup final. They were 15-2.
And since then, 0-2.
So now this: There's reason for doubt, reason to worry. Two straight losses for the first time in the playoffs. Their first loss on the road. The magic hasn't run out, but the test is more on an even footing than it was in any previous round for this eighth seed.
"Darryl (Sutter) and I talk about this a lot," said Lombardi. "How young so many of these kids are."
That's a general manager worrying -- and maybe babysitting slightly -- but it's not really who these Kings are. This team has more internally than even Lombardi cares to admit.
They have three Stanley Cup winners in Justin Williams, Rob Scuderi and Dustin Penner. They have those who played for the Cup in Jarret Stoll, Simon Gagne and Jeff Carter. Goaltender Jonathan Quick may have been a backup but he was part of the silver-medal winning American team at the 2010 Olympics. Brown was a key player in Vancouver. And they have Olympic gold medal winner Drew Doughty and his teammate Mike Richards, who was won basically at every level in which he's played.
There is all kinds of big-game experience on this team, in spite of its age. That we know.
What we don't know is whether the tide has shifted too dramatically for the team from surf country. For the third time in the series the Stanley Cup will be in the building, all shined up and ready for presentation. For the third time the Kings will try to make history.
What seemed obvious just a few days ago now is mired in doubt.