The last goaltender to take the Los Angeles Kings to the Stanley Cup final was Kelly Hrudey back in 1993, at the height of the Wayne Gretzky era. Gretzky is supposed to be in the house for the ceremonial puck drop Monday night, ahead of the third game of the Stanley Cup final between the Kings and New Jersey Devils, but then all the focus will turn to the present.
In a series in which the first two games narrowly fell to the Kings by identical 2-1 overtime scores, their key contributor thus far has been one of Hrudey's goaltending successors, Jonathan Quick. Quick may be the master of the nondescript quote, but he is also getting inside the Devils' collective heads right now. They've scored just twice on him, both on deflections, one that went in off L.A. defenceman Slava Voynov after Quick made the original save.
In their third-round victory over the New York Rangers, the Devils found a way to crack the Henrik Lundqvist code. Quick, like Lundqvist, is also a Vézina Trophy finalist, but so far, New Jersey has not found a way to get a clean goal past him in this series – and it is starting to weigh on them.
"We haven't scored enough obviously," said Devils coach Peter DeBoer.
Quick's ascension to stardom is hardly a new playoff phenomenon. Rarely does an NHL postseason go by without a comparatively unknown netminder surging into the spotlight: from recent sensations – Cam Ward of Carolina won the Conn Smythe trophy as a 22-year-old rookie with the 2006 Hurricanes – to the quirky, such as the talking-to-his goal-posts Patrick Roy two decades previously.
Goaltenders frequently enjoy their coming-out parties on these stages. Some, like Roy, linger for decades. Others – remember the immortal Michael Leighton vs. Antti Niemi showdown in 2010? – disappear in the blink of an eye.
What sets Quick apart, according to Hrudey, is that he appears to be at the forefront of the ever-shifting goaltending tide. For years, the prototypical new-age style was the butterfly goaltender, as embodied by J.S. Giguère, who took the Anaheim Ducks to Stanley Cup finals in 2003 and 2007. Giguère's family used to tell funny stories about how just how clumsy he was in every other sporting pursuit; that his one-and-only skill was the ability to get big in front of a shooter.
Quick is the opposite, just a pure natural athlete. Technique and conditioning awareness came later, under the guidance of a pair of Kings' goalie coaches, Bill Ranford and Kim Dillabough, who have worked with him since he turned pro after two seasons with the University of Massachusetts. Quick's style includes elements of the traditional stand-up approach, which relies on reflexes; a hint of butterflying, which relies on positioning; and one wrinkle – in which he puts the paddle of the goal stick flat across the crease to take away the low shot. Quick can do the latter because of his leg strength – a speedy post-to-post leg push that Hrudey says is unlike anything he's ever seen.
"Athletically, I love watching him," said Hrudey, who suggests Quick's style is only possible because of training that is "second to none. I'm told he works a lot in the gym and works a lot with weights, and that's why, when he comes across, he can be so upright. That's a very rare thing – to have that combination of strength and speed. Post-to-post, I've never seen anybody quicker."
So is Quick revolutionizing the position? Or just tweaking it a quarter turn, as part of a natural evolution?
"Actually I like both descriptions," Hrudey answered. "He is kind of revolutionizing the position. What I really enjoy about watching him is, a few years ago, all the goalie coaches started to get away from just being a shot blocker. He does a perfect combination [of old and new].
"To be that good takes unique anticipation. That's the thing that really stands out for me. You think of that one-timer that [the Devils' Ilya] Kovalchuk had [in the final 10 seconds of Saturday's game], that was a one-timer in pretty close – and he read that play, start to finish."
With two more victories, the Kings can win the first Stanley Cup championship in the organization's 45-year history. L.A. boasts an eye-popping 14-2 record thus far, and trying hard not to think about why it is on one of the most dominating and unexpected runs in playoff history.
"I don't think you can win with just one or two lines, or a couple of D, or just a goaltender," centre Jarret Stoll said. "You've got to have good depth and guys that chip in, whether offensively scoring a goal, or killing penalties or blocking a shot, or taking hits to make a play. There are so many things that go into it. Right now, a lot of people are doing a lot of good things."