Who can say they saw this coming - the Los Angeles Kings looking like the 1977 Montreal Canadiens with just one loss in this year's NHL playoffs?
Well, by employing 20-20 hindsight it should have been obvious since late February when head coach Darryl Sutter's approach started to take hold of his charges. Sutter was brought in just before Christmas and inherited a team that couldn't score goals despite the presence of players like Mike Richards, Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty.
Usually when a coach is fired, the replacement was brought in because the team's defensive problems dragged it down. Defending is a lot more work and not nearly as much fun as scoring goals so it is the area that tends to slip first.
However, the Kings were good at keeping the puck out of their net, thanks mostly to goaltender Jonathan Quick, but not so good at putting it in down at the other end of the ice. They finished the regular season 29th of 30 teams in offence, scoring at a pedestrian clip of 2.37 goals per game.
Sutter, no doubt with an eye on the size of the Kings' forwards, introduced a punishing fore-checking game to his new team. And he employed his famous family's chief characteristic - an unsmiling dedication to hard work and the expectation of the same from those around it - to drill it into his team.
By late February, the message sunk in. On Feb. 25, the Kings beat the Chicago Blackhawks 4-0, which started an impressive stretch run to the playoffs. In their last 21 games, the Kings ran up a 13-5-3 record and scored at a rate of 3.10 goals per game.
Thanks to their desultory work earlier in the season, though, the Kings were still life-and-death to make the playoffs. As late as March 18 they were still not in the Western Conference's top eight teams and they went into the post-season as the eighth seed, considered a mere bump on the road for the No. 1 Vancouver Canucks' expected run to a second consecutive Stanley Cup final. There were some NHL watchers who said the Kings could make some noise but not many.
Six weeks later, the Kings are 10-1 in the playoffs and two games away from their first appearance in the Cup final since 1993. Tuesday night's 4-0 win over the maxed-out Phoenix Coyotes, which gave the Kings a 2-0 lead in the conference final, showed just how much offensive depth the Kings have.
The Coyotes worked hard to shut down the Kopitar-Brown-Justin Williams line, which blitzed them in Game 1, only to see Jeff Carter snap out of a scoring funk to spark linemates Richards and Dustin Penner. When that line wasn't causing havoc around Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith's crease, the Kings' third line of Jarret Stoll, Dwight King and Trevor Lewis was rough-housing as well.
By the end of the night, nine Kings were on the scoresheet. Their 35 goals in 11 playoff games were scored by 14 different players.
General manager Dean Lombardi, whose future was the subject of speculation not long ago, put together a forward lineup of size, skill and grit. The Sutter work ethic is catching, too, as even Penner, a large fellow with much skill who had a reputation as an intermittent performer, using his size to maximum benefit to his linemates.
The key to the Kings' attack is their merciless fore-checking. Their big forwards get in the offensive zone quickly and hit hard to force turnovers. They also crowd the net and thanks to their size no team's defence has been able to handle the Kings' forwards so far.
"We had a good start to the game and it kind of carried over with myself and [Penner]skating up the walls," Carter said after scoring three goals Tuesday night. "Both [of us]being big guys, it's kind of tough to stop. [Richards]is such a smart player in the middle, he's going to find us.
"We needed to have a big night. Kopie and Brownie and Stick [the Kopitar line]have been carrying us for a while. We needed to do our part, so it was good."Report Typo/Error