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Monday, May 7, 2012

The Kings are Different

The L.A. Kings... in the Stanley Cup Western final?

Yes you're reading correctly. I didn't even have this team making the playoffs, let alone going 8-1 in two playoff rounds so far, calmly and collectively knocking out the #1 and #2 seeds in the Western Conference -- the first time that has ever been done.

Should the Phoenix Coyotes defeat the Nashville Predators, the Kings will have the chance to run the table 1-2-3 in the West.

Impressive stuff.

Since the lockout, each year there always seems to be a 7th or 8th seed that makes a deep run, whether it be the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, our beloved Montreal Canadiens and this year, the Los Angeles Kings -- a team that stamped its ticket to the postseason after its 81st game of the season.

The thing is, no matter their terrific playoff runs, ultimately each team fell short. But this year could be different.

Dustin Brown congratulates Jonathan Quick after winning their second round series 4-0 against the St. Blues. Pic: AP

This is a team that looked pathetic at times this season. Aside from goaltender Jonathan Quick, most of the team underwhelmed for the better part of the season. Defensively they were pretty good, but they just couldn't put the puck into the net. The Mike Richards addition made a big splash last summer, but didn't really produce any major results.

Even worse, Wayne Simmonds, who came over to Philadelphia in the deal, emerged as a strong power forward this year and made Holmgren and the Flyers look like the winners in that deal (they still are, in my opinion).

Then Dean Lombardi fired coach Terry Murray, bringing in Darryl Sutter and the team still had trouble finding its identity -- and scoring goals. Dustin Penner was a write-off, getting more publicity for his marital problems and the now infamous "pancake incident;" and Captain Dustin Brown was rumoured to be on the trade block after Lombardi picked up another underachiever with a heavy contract, Jeff Carter.

Looked like the ship was going down.

But Dustin Brown took a long look in the mirror and decided he wanted to be a difference maker from that point on. And he has been. The Kings made the playoffs, and are now 8 wins away from what even the Great One couldn't accomplish, win the Stanley Cup in Los Angeles.

Now it's still a long ways away, but I have to tell you, I'm jumping on that Kings' bandwagon.

Why? Because they're playing the kind of playoff hockey that wins Stanley Cups.

Hey, I'm no expert (so the experts tell me) but I've been watching hockey my entire life. And I'm telling you, this team seems to have the right things in place:

1) Great goaltending: Jonathan Quick had an All-Star year and is playing superb. He makes the key saves at the key moments.
2) Dustin Brown is leading by example: the guy gets under opposition players' skins (and not in the Brad Marchand manner), he plays a gritty, physical game, and is scoring those big goals when needed.
3) Dustin Penner: with the pancakes finally digested, he seems to have shaken off his sleepiness and all of a sudden is the kind of power forward that the Kings thought they were getting when they picked him up from the Oilers last year at the deadline. Remember, this is a guy who I wanted the  Habs to pick up last year. He's large and in charge. He's going to the net. He's making plays. He's skating hard. He's taking the lead from Brown.
4) The Grinders are grinding: you may get to the dance with the big names, but it's the 3rd and 4th liners who need to contribute to go all the way and win the big prize. From Maxime Talbot with Pittsburgh in '09, to Brad Marchand for the Bruins, to Travis Moen who scored the cup clinching goal for the Ducks a few years back, you need depth scoring to win it all. The Kings are getting it. Jordan Nolan scored yesterday's first goal and they're getting contributions throughout their lineup.
5) They play as a unit: Backchecking, sweat, sacrifice, do what needs to be done, from everyone. Anze Kopitar saved the tying goal late in the 3rd yesterday.

Kings / Rangers final? First-ever coast to coast Stanley Cup final? Could be. But much hockey to play. The thing that makes the Kings different from the other magical darkhorse runs from the past is the way they are winning. Take the Habs of 2010. They won both of their series in 7 games. The Kings? They beat the Canucks in 5 and the Blues in 4 straight. They're not eking it out by a goal that could've gone either way -- they're dominating.


HABS COACHING UPDATE: grumblings around the league. Looks like Rick Dudley is coming in to be Bergevin's assistant GM, especially for his draft knowledge. But Brian Burke, Dudley's current employer, doesn't want to let him go until after the draft. This could get fun.

Meanwhile Elliotte Friedman broke a rumour on the CBC last night that Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville is on the outs with Chicago GM Stan Bowman, and might be in line for the Montreal job. I dunno, his french, n'est pas tres good.

Other rumours have Marc Crawford on the short-list. Could be a "what did I tell you!?" moment. I've had his name out there since the fall. He at least speaks French even if it's rusty, and his wife is French.

Both are cup winners at least. I like that.


AND FINALLY: This just off the boards. Claude Giroux has been suspended one game for his hit to the head on New Jersey's Dainius Zubrus. Oh oh Flyers. Oh oh!!

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