Fans of the Los Angeles Kings can exhale. Their long international nightmare is just about over. In Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday night at Staples Center, the Kings proved they are the bumbling knuckleheads of yore no more. They posted an emphatic 4-0 thrashing of New Jersey and thus, for all intents and purposes, exorcised the Devils from these playoffs.
The Kings can officially have their way with the Stanley Cup on Wednesday, when Game 4 will be staged. Obviously, there's always a chance the Devils might suddenly pop a biscuit into Jonathan Quick's basket and make a game of it, maybe even extend the series. But it's unlikely. And if there are Devil worshippers refusing to acquiesce, they should remember that since the NHL implemented the best-of-seven format in 1939, only one club - the 1942 Toronto Maple Leafs - have come back from an 0-3 hole to win the Cup.
On Monday, after a stiff first period, the Kings displayed their superiority, and in the process probably broke the Devils' spirit. When the Devils couldn't convert on a 5-on-3 opportunity late in the first period, they must have realized their fate.
In a way, it's more significant than a Lakers championship. The Lakers are expected to win titles. They've been beloved and supported since the '60s. They've paraded many stars down their red carpet. They're ingrained in the culture of the city. They're established. It's Southern California, basketball is played on an epidemic scale, and the Lakers' success is just an extension of that passion.
The same can be said of the Dodgers. And USC football. And UCLA basketball.
But the Kings? They've always been orphans looking for a loving home. Over the years they've smiled and waved, they've introduced promotions, they traded for Wayne Gretzky. And they've had their moments, including their only previous trip to the finals, in 1993, a 4-1 series loss to the Montreal Canadiens from which the most indelible image was a stick with too much curve.
Yet, the Kings could never bust through the credibility barrier. They were always just another colorful accessory on a glamorous beauty.
This will change all that.
Winning the Stanley Cup - and yes, the Kings still need one more victory, but again, it's in the Kings-embroidered duffel bag - will elevate the profile of this stepchild.
"Since I've been here," said Kings center Anze Kopitar, who slapped a spectacular shot past Marty Brodeur to make it 2-0 in the second period, "it hasn't always been the brightest time in L.A., being a hockey team. We tried to turn that around this year. We want to win it for the fans, and we want to win it for ourselves."
There are two sets of fans: The ones who performed the hockey aficionado's version of self-flagellation for years by attending dismal contests in half-empty arenas with little hope; and the ones who sat out all that, figuring they'd start paying attention when the Kings gave them a reason to do so.
Both of them will benefit from having the Stanley Cup within the city limits. The former will soothe their wounds and cry out to the heavens in appreciation, and the latter will become just a little more enthusiastic.
Then there is a third group, yet to be formed: Converts who want to know what all the fuss is about. Those are the ones who might be seduced by a shiny Cup.
"This is a hockey town," said the Kings' Justin Williams. "But to stay a hockey town, you've got to win consistently. We'd like to instill something long term here."
That could indeed happen. The Kings have a passel of young stars, led by Kopitar, Quick, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown. They have a supportive ownership group in place, and an outstanding general manager in Dean Lombardi. They have all the pieces necessary not only to shatter past perceptions, but to form handsome new ones.
As Game 3 came to a close Monday night, Staples Center rocked with anticipation. But the feeling was not confined to that building. Around town, people are talking hockey. They're remembering names of players. They're commenting on the Kings' stellar penalty-killing unit, which was brilliant again on Monday. They're actually uttering the name "Kopi" more often than Kobe, at least in recent days.
And in case you're wondering: The Ducks' title run in 2007 was fun, but it wasn't anything like the Kings' celebration will be. The Ducks were younger and played in Orange County. The Kings have been L.A.'s team since 1967, for better or worse. Mostly worse.
The Lakers are in transition, wondering what the future holds. The Clippers are on the upswing, but with a long way to go. The Dodgers have new owners, and the city is happy about that. The Angels are recovering from a start that felt like one long migraine.
Meanwhile, the Kings have taken over the town. That will happen when your hometown team is about to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in its 45-year history.
"We're a focused group right now," Williams said. "We're not going to let anything get in our way. We certainly don't want to get back on that plane. We're tasting that we're close, and that should drive us even more."
One more victory, and the Stanley Cup will have a salted rim and be filled with margaritas. It will be a different kind of party, with a Southern California flavor. But the Kings and their fans have earned special treatment after what they've been through all these years. No one can deny them now.
Michael Ventre is a regular contributor to NBCSports.com; follow him at http://twitter.com/MichaelVentre44.