“History will be made.” The slogan for the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs promises that every postseason something historical and it is often true. Wayne Gretzky on three different occasions scored more than 40 points in a playoff season (And Super Mario did it once). In 1990, John Druce scored 9 goals in a five game playoff series. The Devils (twice) and Flames each won 10 road playoff games in route to the Stanley Cup. Pat Lafontaine. Keith Primeau and Petr Sykora ended marathon overtimes in dramatic style. And Patrick Kane, Brett Hull, Jason Arnott and little known Uwe Krupp have scored OT goals to win their team the Stanley Cup. The 2012 Stanley Cup Finals have been no different, but one major historical moment is left. For the 1st time in NHL history, an 8th seed, the Los Angeles Kings, have a chance to win the Stanley Cup. And you better believe they can do it.
For the last few seasons the LA Kings have on the cusp of playoff success, yet always seem to come up short. While their recent history of playoff failure has not received the attention that teams like the San Jose Sharks or Washington Capitals have, the Kings have been underachievers. This year’s team at first looked no different. They were one of the lowest scoring regular season team and jumped in and out of the playoff picture many times. In fact, they needed wins down the stretch to make sure they made the dance. The only consistent thing all year has been Jonathan Quick, and it seemed at times he could not even save the Kings. So what changed? Key shake ups at key times.
The Kings of recent years have always been a talented group but a group with holes, mainly at center and wing. The most successful teams in the NHL the last few seasons have followed a very similar model up front; three well-rounded centers. The Kings had one offensive center (Kopitar) and one defensive center (Jarret Stoll), but had a hole on the 2nd line. To fill the hole, the Kings added former Flyers Captain Mike Richards in an offseason blockbuster that moved popular forward Wayne Simmonds and rising star Brayden Schenn to Philadelphia. Richards is one of the most well-balanced centers in hockey and solidified the all important 2C spot that seem to plague so many teams in hockey. But, for most of the season, the offense struggled as Richards suffered injuries and line combination did not work. And when a team with high aspirations struggles, the next change is normally the coach. Enter Darryl Sutter.
Darryl Sutter, who had not coached for five seasons, brought instant change to the Kings. Former coach Terry Murray was known for his conservative manner and style of play, which worked for the Kings during their rebuild. But the message began to fall on deaf ears. Sutter on the other hand plays a very aggressive style focusing on fore checking and back checking, physicality, and discipline. Sutter himself is also known as a straight shooter who tells it like it is. The Kings responded to this change and began to climb the ladder out West, but were still in a race for 8th. So, the Kings were then willing to move a major contributor at a deep position, Jack Johnson, to the Columbus Blue Jackets to reunite Richards with friend and line mate Jeff Carter to solidify a long-standing hole on the wing.
The result has been two balanced scoring lines (Williams-Kopitar-Brown and Carter- Richards-King) that have paid dividends for the Kings in April and May. And like any successful playoff run, role players need to step up and they have for LA. For example, rookie Dwight King has equaled his regular season goal total (in 27 games) with 5 goals, 2 of which were game winners, and Trevor Lewis has been an integral part of the impressive penalty kill. Even former Oiler scapegoat Dustin Penner has stepped up, scoring the OT winner to send the Kings to the Finals. Combine this with the perfectly balanced defensive corps of Drew Doughty/ Rob Scuderi/ Willie Mitchell/ Slava Voyno/ Matt Greene/ Alec Martinez and the stellar goaltending that has existed all season and the Kings have built an unstoppable juggernaut over the last 14 games.
So how good have the Kings been? They have only lost two games in the playoffs, and shockingly both have been on home ice, and have outscored their opponents almost 2:1 (41-22). They are by the numbers the highest scoring and best defensive team left in the playoffs and have been an impressive 91% effective on the penalty kill. They have also won 10 straight road playoff games dating to last season, which is an NHL record. Their captain Dustin Brown leads the playoffs in scoring (or will with one more point to pass the incredible Claude Giroux) and have five of the top seven in terms of plus-minus, led by the Brown, Drew Doughty, and Anze Kopitar. And of course, it is impossible to ignore the goaltender, Jonathan Quick, who post the best GAA and save percentage of remaining goalies with 2 shutouts. And because of all these things and a dominating and punishing style of play instituted by Sutter, the Los Angeles Kings are the only the second 8th seed to make it to the Finals, joining the 2006 Edmonton Oilers. And with no disrespect to the Rangers and Devils, the Kings will do what the Oilers could not. They are not scared by the road, are gelling at the right time, their best players are playing at their best, including their goalie, and maybe most importantly are well rested. The Kings have made a lot of changes this year and taken some risk. But the risk will pay off when Dustin Brown lifts the Stanley Cup.
Matt Ragghianti is an NHL writer for The Sports Blitz. He can be contacted at MRagghianti@TheSportsBlitz.com.