In a Stanley Cup final that glints red, white and blue, the pivotal player is out of Connecticut—not to mention out of this world.
He is the aptly named Jonathan Quick, a goaltender and the author of a pair of 2--1 overtime wins over the Devils last week, when the Kings seized a 2--0 series lead. The victories ran Los Angeles's playoff road record to a Twilight Zone--like 10--0. Perhaps the only comparable postseason streak came in 1993 when the Canadiens won 10 an improbable straight overtime games, matches that are supposed to be coin flips unless somebody like, say, Hall of Famer Patrick Roy is in the net. And during a magical spring for the best road team since the army of Alexander the Great, Quick has been a lot like Roy—even though Roy chatted to his goalposts and the 26-year-old Quick said nothing remotely of interest after two of the most significant wins of his career.
"I'm not going to apologize for our goalie," L.A. defenseman Willie Mitchell said after Game 2. He did not mean Quick's studied blandness but his play, which has been so sensational that New Jersey is not shooting at the net so much as near the net, sensing that a deflection is the best hope for beating him. "This is my second year here, and he's one of the best goaltenders I've ever seen," Mitchell says. "He's also one of the best teammates ever because he's such a selfless guy. I'll make a mistake, it'll end up in our net, and he won't glare or say anything except, 'I shoulda had it.' Love the guy."
Quick might prove to be a once-in-a-generation goalie, just as the series might prove to be a once-in-16-years phenomenon for hockey in the U.S. There was the 1980 Miracle on Ice. That was followed by the 1996 World Cup victory. Now there is the 2012 final, the Stanley Cup of the USA. Whether the Devils fight their way back after a pair of losses in which the difference was supermodel thin or the Kings find more ways to eke out wins while keeping 40-year-old goalie Martin Brodeur up past his bedtime, this bicoastal series should resonate throughout the land.
When the Stanley Cup is won, as tradition dictates, commissioner Gary Bettman will hand the trophy to either New Jersey's Zach Parise (Minneapolis) or L.A.'s Dustin Brown (Ithaca, N.Y.), the first time both finalists have had U.S. natives as captains.
These teams are hallmarks of American hockey, from C to shining C.
The Stanley Cup, a decorative bowl purchased in London for the princely sum of 10 guineas, began its sporting life as the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup, donated by Lord Stanley of Preston in 1892. The Dominion, of course, was Canada. Lord Stanley was Queen Victoria's representative to a land that recently had codified a new winter sport. The notion that Lord Stanley's gift would be hoisted first by an American and then etched with names like Kings defense pair Matt Greene (Grand Ledge, Mich.) and Alec Martinez (Rochester Hills, Mich.) or Devils fourth-line Lilliputian Stephen Gionta (Rochester, N.Y.) would be as foreign to Victorian sensibilities as the concept of professional hockey players representing Los Angeles and Newark.
The itinerant Cup needs neither passport nor introduction; American-based franchises have been competing for it since 1916, and it will be borne in the USA for a 45th time this spring. But this final runs deeper than the addresses of the teams. In addition to the two American captains, this marks the first time since 1931 that both general managers—the Kings' Dean Lombardi (Ludlow, Mass.) and the Devils' Lou Lamoriello (Providence)—are U.S.-born. In Game 2 both teams dressed six Americans in their 20-man lineups, ratios that exceed the overall NHL percentage of American players (24.2%).
Lombardi views this final as less a watershed than a reaffirmation of a hockey nation that has won world junior championships in 2004 and '10 and captured three of the past four women's world titles. Compared with international events, the NHL's playoff tournament—swaddled not in a flag but in the business attire of a league that boasts $3.3 billion in revenues—cannot provide the emotional jolt of Lake Placid or even of the stupendous 1996 World Cup. ("After 1996 if you were a U.S. hockey player, you felt like you had to uphold something," says L.A. defenseman Rob Scuderi, of Bethpage, N.Y. "You wouldn't feel that if there's no standard, right?") And this is far from the first kick at the Cup for Americans in prominent roles. In 1999, Stars defenseman Derian Hatcher became the first U.S. player to captain a Cup winner, five years after Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch became the first U.S.-born Conn Smythe Trophy winner. (Bruins goalie Tim Thomas became the second last year.) But as this spring's big-body tug-of-war switched coasts, the subtext was apparent: American hockey will never again be the poor cousin on the other side of the great, undefended border.
"Certainly it says something because guys on both teams have grown up under the system of USA Hockey," says Islanders assistant coach Doug Weight, a member of the heretofore greatest generation of American hockey, in the 1990s. "The 1980 Olympics were a stepping-stone for my generation, the reason we wanted to play hockey. No matter how many times I see [Islanders pro scouting director] Ken Morrow, I paint a beard on him with my eyes and see him at right defense for Team USA [in Lake Placid]. And these guys now probably were influenced by what we did in '96. So I guess 10-year-olds are watching this final thinking, Yeah, I can do that."