NHL Thoughts – The Least Surprising Surprise
My thoughts on the Los Angeles Kings winning the Stanley Cup and how it’s not surprising despite them being an eight seed.
It’s not amazing that the Los Angeles Kings are Stanley Cup Champions. Many experts and even podcast regular Matt Paligaru (who I stole the title of this column from) expected big things from the Kings this season. They made a huge trade in the off-season to acquire to Mike Richards, who is a guy that plays hard every shift and is one of the best leaders in the sport. They brought back a team that made the playoffs last year and gave everything the San Jose Sharks could handle in the first round.
They had all the right pieces in place. Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, and Dustin Brown were emerging stars. Along with Richards, they also added Simon Gagne. Plus they had Jonathan Quick, who was quickly establishing himself as one of the best goaltenders in the league.
The Kings got off to a slow start and were quick to fire their head coach Terry Murray and replace him with Darryl Sutter, who had been away from the sport for a few years but quickly brought his identity into the locker room and changed the culture. The hiring of Sutter didn’t immediately turn the team around though like Ken Hitchcock did when he was brought in by the St. Louis Blues. Despite getting outstanding performances from Quick and the defense, the team still struggled to score goals. They lost Gagne early in the season, Richards was struggling to find his score touch, Dustin Penner was too busy eating pancakes, and the power play never got going. At the trade deadline, they were in the thick of the playoff race but on the outside looking in. That’s when they made the move to put them over the top.
The Kings traded star offensive defenseman Jack Johnson for another former Philadelphia Flyer, Jeff Carter. The move re-united the Carter/Richards duo that helped lead the Flyers to the Cup Final in 2010. It also boosted the Kings scoring as Richards became much more comfortable with his old partner and Carter rarely passed on a shot that he didn’t like.
After the Carter trade, the Kings went 13-5-3 and got into the playoffs as an eight seed. They could have been a three seed, but an overtime loss on the final day of the season bumped them to the final playoff spot. Everyone who knew hockey knew that this wasn’t your ordinary eight seed though. This was a team built for a long playoff run, they would just have to take a much tougher road.
All you had to do was watch the first game of the Kings vs. Vancouver Canucks series to know that the Kings weren’t going away easy. They took the game to the top seeded Canucks and out-played them in every aspect. They were psychical, pressured the Canucks defense, put pucks on net, and most importantly, got great goaltending. After game 2, they forced the defending Western Conference champions to switch out Roberto Luongo, one of the five best goalies in the league (and unofficially ending his time in Vancouver) in favor of their back-up. The change didn’t help as the Kings still went up three games to none. The Canucks managed to get one game in Los Angeles, but back in Vancouver, the Kings finished them off to start their improbable road run.
The next two series against the two seeded St. Louis Blues and three seeded Phoenix Coyotes were all Los Angeles. They went up 3-0 in both series, managed to sweep the Blues, and finish off the Coyotes in five. Just like in the first round, the Kings took the game to the Blues and Coyotes, got timely goals from everyone on the roster, and once again, got outstanding goaltending from Jonathan Quick.
All three teams that the Kings met in the playoffs were great defensive teams that the Kings managed to crack. Granted the Kings didn’t blow out any of the three teams by four goals or anything, but they scored more than the opposition, and that’s all that matters. What made the Kings so scary offensively is that they didn’t rely on just one player. Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty, etc… all played like you would expect star players to play like, but they also got big points from Dustin Penner, Future NHL 14 Cover Star Dwight King, Justin Williams, Trevor Lewis etc….
Of course, thanks to the remarkable performance by Quick, they didn’t need more than three goals per game.
Before the puck dropped on game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, even though they were an eight seed, the Kings were favored to beat the New Jersey Devils. Many thought the Devils would give the Kings some trouble though. After all, they were built similarly to the Kings. A couple of star players, good scoring depth, a hungry forecheck, a well-positioned defense, and an outstanding goalie, who, unlike Jonathan Quick, had been to the Cup Final before and already had three rings. Even at the age of 40, Martin Brodeur is still getting it done and his experience counted for plenty. People thought if the Devils, who had actually faced adversity during their run to the Final, could put the Kings in a hole that they could put some doubt into the Los Angeles minds. After all, the Kings had only lost twice all playoffs and were undefeated on the road. If the Devils could win one of the first two games at home and just avoid going down 2-0, they’d be in a better position than any of the Kings opponents in the playoffs.
The Devils had their chances in the first two games as both went to overtime, but the Kings cashed in both times to remain undefeated on the road at 10-0. A blowout in game 3 and the Kings found themselves in a familiar position: up 3-0 and ready to closeout the series at home. Like the Canucks and Coyotes though, the Devils managed to take game 4 and stave off elimination. Unfortunately winning game 4 meant they had to beat the Kings in a game 5 and at home.
With their perfect road record on the line and the cup in building, the Kings weren’t able to make history as the Devils put a little bit of doubt into the minds of the fans with a game 5 victory, sending the series back to Los Angeles for game 6.
In a way, a game 5 loss was great for the Kings and their fans. Sure it meant that the Devils were one game away from possibly forcing a game 7, but anyone who saw the Kings play all postseason knew that there was no way that they were losing four straight games when they had only lost twice to the three best teams in the west in the prior 14 games. Going to a game 6 meant that the Kings had a chance to lift the Cup on their home ice and in front of their fans.
And lift the Cup they did. Thanks to a struggling power play that cashed in three times in a five-minute span, the Kings ran away with game 6 and won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. As expected, Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe trophy as the MVP of the playoffs. It was actually funny hearing pundits try and talk up Doughty, Kopitar, and even Brodeur in a losing effort as Conn Smythe winners when everyone except Duane Ford and CJ Ross knew that Quick locked up the trophy after they Kings knocked off the Canucks.
Don’t let people fool you, it’s not surprising that the Kings lifted the greatest prize in professional sports last night. It would have been more surprising if the Kings flat out missed the playoffs given the team they put on the ice. They had a tough road to the Cup, but they were built to win this year. You don’t trade young players like Jack Johnson, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and high draft picks for Mike Richards and Jeff Carter unless you’re looking to win a Stanley Cup immediately.
When you have an elite goaltender, a great defensive system, good offensive talent, and a team that believes in themselves and believes that this is their time, it’s not surprising at all to live in a world where the 2012 Los Angeles Kings are Stanley Cup Champions.