Making sense of the L.A. Kings
The Kings can be the first 8 seed to win a Cup, and equal the 1988 Oilers 16-2
There is no one factor, but a combination of six, for this year's playoff success
You can find a link between these Kings and the rank underdog '38 Black Hawks
LOS ANGELES -- Honestly, do the 2012 Los Angeles Kings make any sense to you?
The Saint Jude All-Stars, which appeared to be a lost cause at midseason, are on the cusp of not merely winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history -- an eighth-seed about to whitewash 45 years of futility with a thick veneer of pixie dust -- but perhaps equaling the 16-2 record of the 1988 Edmonton Oilers, the best mark since the NHL adopted the current format of four rounds of best-of-series.
If the Kings win Game 4 on Wednesday night, they will not only be the first eighth seed to win the Cup. (The 2006 Oilers reached Game 7 before losing in Carolina.) They will have played out the triumphal march from Aida, including the elephants on their jumbo third and fourth lines.
Anyway, to refresh memories of those dynastic Oilers teams from the 1980s -- and Los Angeles center Jarret Stoll needed some prompting on Gretzky and Messier and Kurri and Fuhr -- they were about to win their fourth Stanley Cup in five years, the most impressive piece of eye candy the NHL has ever seen. The '88 Oilers, in Wayne Gretzky's final season in Edmonton, truly were hockey royalty.
Despite the name and the original colors of the franchise, the Kings were not to the purple born. Even when Gretzky played in Southern California, the Kings were not royalty despite the speculative name. At Game 3 on Monday, the most famous athlete in the arena was David Beckham with Gretzky a reasonable second. (Kings captain Dustin Brown has a plus-minus rating, not a Q rating.)
Indeed, the Kings are the second best team in their own practice facility if all those Lakers championship banners on the walls in El Segundo are put in historical context. Now maybe one day these current Kings will slip a few players into the Hockey Hall of Fame -- Jonathan Quick? Drew Doughty? -- but that is not much solace to the New Jersey Devils, who must be wondering how they ended up on the edge of the San Andreas Fault against a team that they pushed around for stretches in both Games 1 and 2 and had on the ropes early in Game 3.
So, how do you explain the Kings? A checklist:
Goaltending. Quick has been superb, obviously. He has stopped 70 of 72 shots in the final. He has been so effective that the Devils have begun focusing on shooting near him as much as at him, looking for deflections or redirections. When asked if he had ever seen playoff goaltending of this caliber, Kings coach Darryl Sutter replied, "Yeah. Miikka Kiprusoff, (Calgary's Cup finalist goalie in 2004) ... Do the math: 14-13, goals-for, goals-against, seven-game series. Pretty incredible." Goaltending is always a factor, but Quick's historic play doesn't sufficiently explain 15-2 nor, for that matter, the Kings' 10-0 road record.
GALLERY: The Kings road to the Cup final
Coaching change. The Kings were foundering in December when GM Dean Lombardi fired Terry Murray, reaching out to Sutter, who was back in Viking, Alberta, tending to his cattle. (Calgary Herald columnist George Johnson originally nicknamed Sutter "The Jolly Rancher." Perfect.) Sutter said on Tuesday that when he took the Kings' call he was in his barn but not "shoveling s..." although he had been earlier that day. Anze Kopitar initially wasn't even sure which of the Sutter hockey brothers Lombardi had hired. (There are six who played in the NHL.)
Sutter's impact was incremental. Indeed, the Kings did not truly get hot until late February, more than two months after their coach traded his rubber boots for skates. "After Darryl came, I talked to Stoll and I told him I can feel the attitude changing," Kings winger Dustin Penner says. "We just became a more confident group overall." Sutter kept the defensive structure while demanding a more intense forecheck, but a coaching change is an unsatisfactory explanation.
The Jeff Carter trade. Yes, the Kings, 29th overall in goals, needed a scorer, but the winger had six goals and nine points in 16 regular-season games. This does not exactly represent a freshet of pucks in opposing nets. Maybe Carter allowed Sutter to balance his lines, but it hardly explains that 15-2 record -- even if Carter did have the Game 2 overtime winner.
Health. Now we are getting somewhere. Unlike most finalists who are the very picture of health in June, assuming that picture is Edvard Munch's The Scream, Los Angeles is as ding-free as any prospective Cup team can be. Despite obvious play-through-it problems, including Carter's ankle injury, the Kings are as relatively robust as the 2011 Bruins. Even left winger Simon Gagné was able to return from concussion to play, albeit ineffectually, in Game 3. The Kings' ability to wrap things up quickly surely has contributed to their run of good fortune, but it alone does not translate to 15-2.
Opponents. In the first round, the Kings were fortunate to face the Presidents' Trophy-winner, Vancouver, which missed Daniel Sedin until the fourth game. (There's the matter of health, turned on its head.) St. Louis, in the second-round, had an extraordinary season after its coaching change, but had no playoff gear to rev up its embryonic Cup bandwagon. In the conference final, the Kings found a Phoenix team with more gumption than goals.
Star turns. The Kings certainly have had more of them than New Jersey: Kopitar's Game 1 overtime breakaway, Doughty's Bobby Orr act in Game 2, and Carter's persistent play on the winner, but have not put on clinics that would seem worthy of 15-2.
The apparent answer to 15-2 is not one of the above, but all of the above. Quick, Sutter, a trade for Carter that allowed Slava Voynov to step into the No. 4 defenseman's role, good health, timeliness that is next to godliness against the Devils, and a virtual rose-petal strewn path against imperfect New Jersey, which was forced to a Game 7 double overtime in the first round by Florida.
"I think maybe the last six weeks of the season you could see things turn around here," defenseman Rob Scuderi says. "We started to play consistently. A lot of the plays we were doing the previous 30 games that just weren't falling for us ... then shots started to go in. We started to get more chemistry. You could really start to sense it from there. I don't think anyone panicked."
Says Stoll, "Nowadays you might see a lot of lower seeds getting further in the playoffs. I think you will. The league is so good now. Standings don't mean much now, except home ice."
And we all know how much that has meant to the Kings in the playoffs. There is precedent to the triumph of the hockey upstart if your sense of hockey predates the Original Six. The 1938 Chicago Black Hawks provided the road map back in the days when Black and Hawks had a space between them, like Penner's front teeth. Of course, Chicago was more of a rank underdog than these Kings, who finished 13th overall in points but only 16 behind the NHL-leading Canucks.
GALLERY: Dark Horses in the Cup Final
Indeed, rank might have been the right description for those Black Hawks. They sneaked into the playoffs by virtue of a third-place finish in the American Division after winning just 14 of 48 games and posting a minus 42 goal-differential. Unlike the Kings, who went 13-5-3 in the last six weeks of the season, the Hawks lost their final three games by a combined score of 13-3. Chicago then proved the adage that you have to actually buy a ticket before you win the lottery. In rapid order, the Black Hawks beat the Montreal Canadiens in the best-of-three by taking Game 3 at the Forum in overtime, then eliminated the New York Americans in three, and finally defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs in four games in the best-of-five final.
The other link between those Hawks and these Kings is the number of Americans. While Los Angeles has a U.S.-born GM in Dean Lombardi and ices six Yanks, the Black Hawks were even more distinctively red, white and blue. Rookie coach Bill Stewart was the first U.S.-born coach to win the Cup. He had seven Americans in the lineup.
So that is history ... and the Devils might be, too, by late Wednesday night.