Crown the Kings: Los Angeles caps unlikely run with first Stanley Cup
LOS ANGELES -- At 7:48 PDT as dusk gathered over the City of Angels, the Stanley Cup finally had its Hollywood ending.
After 45 years of fun and futility, of goofy color schemes and grandiose bankrupt dreams, of the Great One and rosters full of distinctly Lesser Ones too numerous to mention, the Los Angeles Kings, Destiny's Doormat, won the first Cup in franchise history, a persuasive six-game triumph over the New Jersey Devils that ended with an inelegant, blood-oozing 6-1 win.
It marked the first title for a No. 8 seed, a championship that underscores the vagaries of the sport while basically laying waste to the importance of the 1,230-game regular season -- beyond, of course, actually qualifying for the tournament. The Kings never did need to light a candle to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, because they were only 16 points behind the Western Conference winner, Vancouver, but Los Angeles did not exactly ride roughshod through the regular year.
Then, magic. In a wondrous springtime, the residue of goaltending, pixie dust and a delightful kid defenseman combined to produce one of the most remarkable of NHL playoff runs.
Los Angeles dropped only four games in four series en route to the Cup, virtually skipping to the trophy that hockey people flatter themselves into thinking is the most difficult to win. While Kings players protested a bit too loudly that they often had faced adversity after dropping Games 4 and 5 to New Jersey, they never lost a match in any series until they held a 3-0 cushion. Yes, they won a passel of close games -- including a pair of 2-1 overtimes in Newark to open the final -- but the ineluctable truth is there are tougher rides on the freeways around here than the path Los Angeles took to the Cup, which just happened to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Darryl Sutter first becoming an NHL coach.
General manager Dean Lombardi's prescient decision to pluck Sutter out of his Alberta ranch in December and instill some passion is only one of the factors that forged the team that found itself just in time.
"It was a different attitude, not so much a different style," said defenseman Rob Scuderi of the changes after Sutter replaced Terry Murray. "Just a different kind of attitude and a slightly different way to play. We needed it at the time."
The re-emergence of defenseman Drew Doughty, a thinking man's alternative Conn Smythe Trophy candidate (predictably, the voting writers chose Kings goalie Jonathan Quick), and the deadline trade for Jeff Carter, which cleared a regular spot for defenseman Slava Voynov, also were among the reasons that the eighth-place meek did not inherit the Earth as much as seize it.
"This is a special group, and it takes a special group to win," said Scuderi, who previously won a Cup with Pittsburgh in 2009. "There were long stretches of the season that were a struggle for us, but we kept the faith, and it was no different in the playoffs."
"Well, it was a long road," Quick said. "Obviously, Darryl came in. You know, I felt like everybody felt a little more accountable for their own actions, their day-to-day play, practice, everything. But at the end of the day, no matter what, it's got to come from the room, and guys have to make a decision to work. I think we did that."
Of course, the Devils were stunningly complicit in their own demise at the Staples Center. In the morning at the team hotel, coach Peter DeBoer was asked an anodyne question about the importance of discipline. In words that would prove to be prophetic, he said, "It's critical. It's been critical to us the entire playoffs. It's one of the things that has separated us from some of the teams we've played. ... We almost didn't make it past the first round because of penalties. We fixed that since then, but that can't change."
Steve Bernier and his teammates apparently missed the memo. The math: a major, a double minor, four minors, an automatic game misconduct and two 10-minute misconducts just, well, because.
Bernier is a Devils winger, a prototypical power forward, a first-round draft choice who has spiraled down the depth charts of five NHL teams. He devolved into a fourth-line banger, although there are times and places to bang, and a defenseless Scuderi a few feet from the end board in the first period of a Stanley Cup elimination game is neither the time nor the place.
Face, meet glass. Scuderi gave at the office, leaking copious quantities of blood from a chiseled face that looks like it was borrowed from an Easter Island statue. While the penalty-minute totals look as lopsided as the scoreboard -- 47-6 -- Bernier's was the one that counted.
"It was what it was," Devils goalie Martin Brodeur said with a shrug.
Bernier's finished check essentially finished the Devils after Los Angeles, which won 10 straight on the road, channeled its inner 1988 Oilers and scored three goals during Bernier's five-minute boarding major.
"That's a good trade-off," said Scuderi, who had a huge welt on the bridge of his nose and stitches zigzagging on his lip and schnozz. "Not the ideal way to be out, you don't want to miss any time," -- he returned after undergoing the concussion protocols -- "but I don't play the power play, so it worked out. It was a good feeling [seeing the glut of power-play goals] because I knew I wouldn't have to score for us." He laughed at his own joke.
Kings captain Dustin Brown had looked like the leading Smythe candidate for three rounds before going on sabbatical in the final, but he reappeared with the man-advantage, repatriated through the slick work of the 22-year-old defenseman, Doughty, who held the puck at the left point, studiously casual. Rather than trying to force a seeing-eye shot through a thicket of bodies, he elected to try a slap pass to Brown, who had curled off the right boards and was circling to the slot. For the first 10 minutes, Brodeur had looked so sharp that it seemed the Kings might have to conjure something special to beat him. Doughty's vision and timing qualified as something special. Less than a minute into the power play, Brown, hardly visible through the first five games, redirected Doughty's pass for a 1-0 Kings lead.
Brown would build on it with some patience of his own. He found himself tight to Brodeur. Instead of squandering a shot, Brown reversed, wheeling back around Dainius Zubrus and into the high slot in search of a better shooting angle. Brown rifled the puck, Jeff Carter tipped it late, and the Kings had two goals with more than two-and-a-half minutes remaining with the man advantage.
And when it seemed that New Jersey would escape the remnants of Bernier's Blunder with a daunting but not necessarily Sisyphean two-goal deficit, the Kings, who had their third line on the ice for the final 40 seconds, padded the lead. Dwight King drove the net, a deflated Brodeur didn't cleanly handle a weak shoveled shot, and Trevor Lewis outmuscled New Jersey defenseman Andy Greene to poke it in with eight seconds left on the extended power play.
"You know, it's a bad spot for him to be in," DeBoer said when asked if he felt for Bernier. "Everybody knows Bernie's heart's in the right place. He's not at fault."
Assessed the automatic game misconduct that came with the boarding major, Bernier was lucky in a perverse sense. He didn't have to stick around to watch the last 50 minutes, unlike Brodeur.
Even when the Devils avoided the penalty box, the Kings looked like they were playing with a man-advantage for much of the rest of the game. Of course, during a particular shift one of those extra men was a linesman. Pierre Racicot ran the sweetest pick play that the Kings employed in the final. With Brown coming down the left flank, retreating Devils defenseman Anton Volchenkov collided with Racicot, who took a nasty tumble and basically turned the New Jersey zone into a ball of confusion. Brown finally dished to Carter, who looked high blocker side on Brodeur. The goalie, who philosophically disdains the butterfly, already was on his knees. Goaltending. Not praying. Kings, 4-0. (Racicot had to leave after two periods.)
The Kings then bled the clock as surely as they bled from their mugs. When Devils defenseman Bryce Salvador cut King around the lip with a high stick six minutes into the second period, he gave Los Angeles four stress-free minutes of power-play time. While the Kings moved the puck like the Harlem Globetrotters in the offensive zone -- honestly, you thought Doughty was going to pull the confetti-in-the-bucket trick -- they managed to shorten the game against the already demoralized Devils. Another goal at that moment would just have been showing off, although arguably handy. New Jersey finally solved Quick with 75 seconds left in the period when estimable rookie Adam Henrique won the face-off and cashed a greasy rebound of a Petr Sykora backhand that had slingshotted off the goalie's right pad.
The third period was an exercise in anticipation, a couple of Kings goals and a lot of clock watching for a worthy winner. Doughty had points in six of the last seven games (three goals, five assists) and 14 in the last 13 games (four and 10). Quick stopped 509 of 538 shots in 20 games, a .946 save percentage that tied a record for goalies with at least 10 playoff matches. As Sutter noted, "These guys, you know, since March 1st, they've lost about six games. (Eleven, actually.) They've taken a lot of public negativity toward them. Look what they've just done. Pretty awesome. Tells you what type of players they are."
"You know, at our lowest moments, I think the biggest thing is nobody ever turned on someone else," Quick said. "Everybody stuck with it. Go through five- and six-game losing streaks, whatever it was, you know, and guys are still encouraging, still competing in practice. You just can't say enough about the resiliency that it took to get through those times and still make the playoffs."
The surprise ending?
When Commissioner Gary Bettman stepped on the ice to award the Conn Smythe Trophy and the Stanley Cup, he wasn't even booed.
Maybe Los Angeles will become a hard-bitten hockey town in the future, but winning that first Cup is a grand place to start.