On the 48th day of the NHL playoffs, the Los Angeles Kings took Monday off. The nerve of those slackers, thinking they needed a break after a six-week playoff slog, the first NHL team in history to play the maximum 21 games in the first three rounds of the postseason and remain standing at the end of it all.
Beginning Wednesday in Los Angeles against the New York Rangers, the Kings will try to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in three years. While that’s proof of their continuing excellence, the similarities between this and their 2012 Cup run end right there.
Two years ago, the Kings won the Cup in a total of just 20 playoff games. They led 3-0 in each best-of-seven series, including the first round, in which they upset the heavily favoured Vancouver Canucks, then coached by Alain Vigneault. It was pretty much as close as you can come to coasting to a championship.
This year, following Sunday’s come-from-behind 5-4 overtime victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, the Kings have played 21 games in just three rounds.
On paper, the Kings are a better team now than they were in 2012 – more talented, more experienced and deeper at every position. Yet their path to the final has been far more difficult, a function perhaps of the new division-based playoff system which obliged them to play and eliminate three of the NHL’s top seven regular-season teams to get here.
Weirdly, after starting on their first three playoff series on the road, the Kings now get the home-ice advantage for the final, having finished with more points than the Rangers in the regular season.
The Kings reflect the personality of their crusty and doggedly determined coach, Darryl Sutter, who with the victory Sunday night overtook Scotty Bowman and Pat Burns for the most Game 7 coaching wins in NHL history.
Up until Sutter guided the Kings to the Stanley Cup two years ago, the closest he’d ever came to winning a title was in 2004, when his Calgary Flames lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning. It is now the 10th anniversary of that final, but the heartbreak still stings – the Flames believed they had a possible Cup-winning goal disallowed in Game 6.
Instead, Martin St. Louis scored the double-overtime winner and Tampa went on to win in seven games, with Brad Richards earning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff’s most valuable player that year. St. Louis and Richards, of course, are now playing for New York and will be looking to relive past glories, while Sutter will be working to exorcise that memory.
He isn’t the only coach facing ghosts of playoffs past in this series. Vigneault has his share of history with the Kings, a team largely responsible for starting the Canucks’ slide in Vancouver.
In their first-round meeting in 2012, the Canucks were heavy favourites, the No. 1 seed in the West after finishing 16 points ahead of Los Angeles in the regular-season standings. But Vancouver lost in five.
That series marked the start of L.A.’s playoff ascendancy and the end of Vancouver’s. The Canucks haven’t won a single playoff game since then, and ultimately swapped coaches with the Rangers before the start of this season – Vigneault heading to Manhattan, John Tortorella lasting only a year on the Left Coast. Good call there, Canucks.
The Kings’ Marian Gaborik, the leading playoff goal scorer, spent three-and-a-half seasons playing for the Rangers (the team he picked over the Kings as a free agent back in 2009). Gaborik had produced two 40-goal years on behalf of the Rangers, but Tortorella ran him off after the 2012 playoffs because he wouldn’t buy into the coach’s shot-blocking ethos.
Sutter is a far more shrewd coach, understanding what he can get out of players and what he can’t. In L.A., Gaborik has been a superb fit on the top line with Anze Kopitar. In fact, one of the great oddities of this L.A. team is that it was the No. 1 defensive team in the regular season (the Rangers were fourth), but has been unusually prolific on offence in these playoffs, featuring four of the top five scorers in the postseason (Kopitar, Gaborik, Jeff Carter and Justin Williams).
L.A.’s power play has been scoring at a better than 25-per-cent rate for the playoffs, and the only real edge that New York might have is in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist has had an exceptional postseason while his Kings’ counterpart, Jonathan Quick, has been up and down. But Quick already has a Stanley Cup on his resume and the ability to shut the door at important moments, even if he’s given up a spotty goal along the way.
Carter, Williams and Mike Richards all played long enough in the Philadelphia Flyers organization to develop a healthy familiarity with the Rangers. And the Kings have the confidence that comes with having beaten the best, not just in the playoffs but during the regular season playing against Anaheim and San Jose, teams that have turned California into the league’s toughest road trip.
“L.A. is not just a place to come and play a hockey game and work on your tan,” said Williams post-game Sunday. “It's a tough loop in California right now to play. We want to put L.A. on the map, and put it significantly on the map, with regards to hockey.”
With 37 playoff wins over the past three springs, one could argue that mission has already been accomplished.