Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 14, 2012

Lord Stanley’s Cup Goes To Hollywood

They held a Stanley Cup championship parade on Thursday, as they do in some city about this time every year. But there was a fair measure of incongruity in the images of the celebration, as ice hockey’s ultimate prize was paraded down streets lined with palm trees; cheered on by fans who might otherwise have spent the afternoon on surfboards. After all, when one thinks of the NHL and of hockey one thinks of winter and, well, ice. But after the Los Angeles Kings completed their remarkable run through the playoffs with a 6-1 thrashing of the New Jersey Devils in Game 6 at the Staples Center Monday night, the Cup took up residence for the next year in sunny Southern California.

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the improbable nature of the Kings’ championship. They were one of just two teams in the entire league that failed to tally 200 goals. With 40 wins in 82 games, they were the only one of the 16 teams making the playoffs to end the regular season with a losing record. By losing three of their final four games they fell to the 8th seed in the Western Conference, and no 8th seed had ever won the Stanley Cup since the NHL expanded the playoffs to four rounds more than thirty years ago. Their prize for finishing as the bottom seed was a first-round matchup against the Vancouver Canucks, losers to the Boston Bruins in last year’s Finals and winners of the Presidents’ Trophy for having the best regular season record for the second year in a row.

All of which was quite consistent with the history of the Kings. Jack Kent Cooke paid $2 million for the rights to establish one of six teams that were part of the NHL’s expansion prior to the 1967 season. As an owner of professional teams Cooke had great success with the Washington Redskins, who won three Super Bowls under coach Joe Gibbs; and with the Los Angeles Lakers who played in the NBA Finals seven times and won a championship in 1972 during the years of his ownership. But while the Canadian Cooke loved hockey, he was unable to obtain similar success with the Kings, eventually selling both Los Angeles franchises as well as the L.A. Forum which he had built for his teams.

But it really hasn’t mattered who owned the Kings; for most of their history they have been decidedly mediocre. In a league which has sent at least a majority and as many as two-thirds of its teams to the playoffs throughout the Kings’ 45 year existence, they have missed the playoffs almost as often as they have made them. Prior to this year they had been to the Finals just one other time, in 1993 when they were beaten by Montreal in five games.

But if on the face of it expectations for the Kings were low at the start of the playoffs, a close observer might have seen a few signs that would give their fans reason to hope. The team had turned things around a bit after the December firing of head coach Terry Murray. His replacement was Darryl Sutter, who took the Calgary Flames to the Finals in 2004. Just before the trade deadline they acquired center Jeff Carter from Columbus. Carter is a friend and former teammate at Philadelphia of Mike Richards, who the Kings had signed during the off-season. Gradually the two reunited teammates began to bolster the L.A. offense. Most important, this was the year than goalie Jonathan Quick finally came into his own. The Kings may have only scored 194 goals during the regular season, but they still had a positive goal differential of +15. The 26-year old Quick, playing in his fourth NHL season, had ten shutouts and a paltry 1.95 goals against average, good enough to make him a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top netminder.

If Quick was good during the regular season he was phenomenal throughout the playoffs. As the Kings defeated the #1 seed Canucks in five games, then swept the #2 seed St. Louis Blues, then won the Conference Championship by beating the #3 seed Phoenix Coyotes in five, before finally winning the Cup in six games over the Devils, the Connecticut native compiled a 16-4 record, a 1.41 goals against average and a .946 save percentage. Both of the latter two numbers are NHL single-season playoff records for a goalie playing at least fifteen games. Quick also set a record for consecutive road wins in the playoffs at 10, tied for the most shutouts in this year’s playoffs at 3, and allowed two or fewer goals in 18 of the 20 games the Kings played on their way to the championship.

With that kind of performance in net, the outcome of Game 6 was clear before the first period ended. At 10:10 of the first period, the Devils’ Jason Brown was called for a five-minute major penalty after slamming defenseman Rob Scuderi into the boards behind the Devils goal. Scuderi went down to the ice in a pool of blood, and Brown was ejected. The lack of discipline would bring the Devils’ season to a certain end. When a major penalty is called a goal by the team on the power play does not result in the two teams going back to full strength. With a man advantage for a full five minutes, the Kings teed off on the Devils and goaltender Martin Brodeur. Captain Dustin Brown scored first, and he was quickly followed by Carter and Trevor Lewis. The three goals in a span of 3 minutes 58 seconds were the second fastest tallying of three power play goals in NHL playoff history. While there were still more than two periods to play after the puck got by Brodeur for the third time, there wasn’t a person in the Staples Center, including those skating in white and red sweaters, who had any doubt about the outcome.

Carter netted a second score late in the middle period, and Lewis and Matt Greene poured the puck into an empty net after New Jersey pulled Brodeur with four minutes left in the third. By that time the fans were in a frenzy and in the recesses of the arena NHL security personnel were unpacking and polishing hockey’s 35-pound symbol of ultimate triumph. The Stanley Cup was getting ready for its close-up.

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