On the first page of the little blue book of hockey clichés, the Stanley Cup is referred to as a marathon and not a sprint, which is why the Los Angeles Kings' apparent 10K fun run to the first championship in their star-crossed history was as unseemly as it was improbable.
By the time they had built a three games to none series lead on the Devils in the Stanley Cup Final with a 4-0 rout at home on June 4, destiny's erstwhile doormats had sashayed to the cusp of the title in 17 games, a mere two beyond the minimum. They had not lost a match in any series until they had already won the first three games. If a Cup run is supposed to be a test of stamina and will, the Kings were like the kid who has all the test answers written on his cuffs.
But New Jersey, starting with a gritty 3-1 victory in Game 4 two nights later, refused to fold. "This is the Stanley Cup," Los Angeles defenseman Matt Greene harrumphed last Saturday after the Devils' 2-1 Game 5 victory had stopped the Kings' road playoff winning streak at 10. "They just don't hand the thing out to anyone."
"I felt we were tested pretty hard in the first, second and third round," Kings goalie Jonathan Quick said. "Just because we were able to come out on top doesn't mean we weren't tested. You look at all the games; three out of every four wins that we had in each series were [essentially] one-goal games. So if you don't think we were tested in those series, you should be doing a different sport."
As the Kings chartered west for Game 6 on Monday night, the questions confronting the NHL's new Marathon Men were: Was this just a string of bad luck, or had they found themselves transported to Heartbreak Hill, running smack into a wall in the padded presence of Devils goalie Martin Brodeur?
There is no telling whether Brodeur will have the last laugh -- after squandering two potential close-out games, the Kings still led 3-2 in the series -- but he surely had the best laugh. In a third period scrum in Game 5, the venerable goalie emerged with his jersey tugged over his head. When the sweater came down, the grin came out. His face was wreathed in a toothsome smile, a kid-on-the-pond moment.
"I started laughing too," Devils defenseman Henrik Tallinder said. "That's the kind of guy he is. You have to have focus, but you also have to enjoy this. There's two ways you can respond. You can be relaxed or you can be pissed off. For Marty's benefit, it's better for him to be relaxed."
Brodeur's giggles lent a dash of flavor to a series that, until Game 5, had been so polite that the only thing missing was a salad fork. (This is not a compliment, by the way.) There were two actual post-whistle scrums in the third period, including a late tussle near the Kings' goalmouth that wound up with coincidental minors being assessed. The four-on-four opened up the ice in a scenario that should have favored Los Angeles. But the Devils' defense was giving nothing away, unlike Quick, whose play through the first four games had been so commanding -- challenging shooters while not leaving himself vulnerable to backdoor plays -- that he made the Kings look as if the really played in the City of Angles.
But Quick's sense of geometry failed him on Saturday. In the first period, he bolted the cocoon of his crease and simply misplayed the puck, half whiffing and half shooting it off the end boards and directly onto the stick of Zach Parise at the far side of the net. The New Jersey captain, who had taken the same path on the forecheck thousands of times during the season, now found his diligence rewarded with a yawning net. Parise cashed a rare gift in a series that through five games had been so excruciatingly close that neither team could afford to be munificent.
"They scored two goals, we scored one," Kings winger Justin Williams said after Game 5. "They're leaving with smiles on their faces. We're leaving pissed off."
"Both sides get so much out of their forechecks," Devils defenseman Andy Greene said. "We play off that, make things happen off it. That's the way both teams have been built. The momentum swings in the series have come from the forecheck. That's the back and forth."
If the playoffs are eternally defined by a battle of breaks, they also are a war of whiteboards.
The defining match-up -- as critical as Quick vs. Brodeur and Parise vs. Kings right defensemen Drew Doughty and Slava Voynov -- was the feral Devils forecheck against the slick Kings breakout, a struggle as fascinating as New Jersey trying to find a way to slip a puck past Quick. (Of the seven Devils goals in the first five matches, only one, Adam Henrique's dandy skate-to-stick-to-net finish late in Game 4, was a clean shot past the goalie.)
The theater of this hockey war was sharply defined: a space not much larger than 25 square feet. The Kings wanted to move the puck out of their zone through the middle of the ice. Even though New Jersey's defensemen could smother a breakout along the boards, the Devils actually were inviting the Kings to try the middle, which they hoped to turn into quicksand.
When the Devils' dump-ins were out of Quick's range, the Kings generally started their breakout with a pass from a defenseman to his partner, who would then look for a center, like Anze Kopitar, curling in the slot between the faceoff circles. In theory, the Devils were ready for that pass because their forward on the same side as the defenseman who had initiated the D-to-D pass -- F3 in hockey shorthand -- could stall the center. In practice, the Kings often moved the puck too smartly, allowing the center to skate or wheel it to an open winger. When the middle was clogged, their defensemen often circled back and waited for the Devils' defensive kaleidoscope to whirl or they made delicate 10-foot passes that opened the ice.
But on Henrique's winning goal, defenseman Willie Mitchell lost his patience. Aware that two Devils forwards were ready to pounce on the circling Jarret Stoll, Mitchell forced a pass up the boards. Kings wing Dwight King was bumped off Mitchell's feed by defenseman Mark Fayne, a turnover that trapped three Kings when Alexei Ponikarovsky moved the puck quickly to a breaking David Clarkson for the decisive two-on one. In the to-and-fro of forecheck and breakout, the Kings still had the X-factor in the game of X's-and-O's.
You do not diagram Doughty, however. The precocious former Team Canada Olympian, who had a miserable regular season, is a defensive savant. He is neither especially learned -- his considerable gifts seem instinctive -- nor an off-the-charts physical specimen (his training camp holdout did no favors to a body that is more molded than chiseled), but he was as decisive in establishing the Kings' 3-2 series lead as his goalie. Averaging a series-high 26:37 of ice time through the first five games, Doughty does not play defense in the time-honored manner. He does not hover around the net. He often positions himself a stride or two higher in order to pick off pucks in the slot. As one New Jersey forward said, "You'd call it risky, but it's not much of a risk if it always works."
"He sells plays without doing anything," Fayne says. "A quick look off maybe. Then he makes a play. Most guys will get rid of the puck when you move at them, but he just stands there."
That approach is similar to the one the Doughty adopted when he waited out Los Angeles general manager Dean Lombardi during the preseason -- finally signing an eight-year, $56 million deal in late September -- and then stumbled under the psychological weight of his contract until his bravura turn in the playoffs. Doughty likes to take his sweet time.
He did move with alacrity, of course, when his moments arrived. Doughty's weaving end-to-end goal in the Kings' 2--1 victory in Game 2 was the hallmark of a series that, until Game 5, presented few creative bursts. This perhaps explains why teams from the two largest U.S. media markets produced TV ratings on NBC and NBC Sports Network that are best viewed through the Hubble Telescope. (Through four games, ratings were down by about a million viewers per game compared to last year.) Those odd spasms of individual brilliance by the Kings -- a Game 1 overtime breakaway goal by Kopitar, and Doughty's rush in Game 2 -- outnumbered those by the Devils. That was sufficient albeit discomfiting for a team that frittered away two chances at the Cup. Of course, on the page after the marathon-and-sprint business in the little blue book of hockey clichés, it says,
A championship would make the Kings not a team for the ages but a team for their age, an era when all voices seem to resonate with equal force and the inclusive nature of modern playoffs helps sports regress to the mean. Not every man is a king, of course, but the Kings are everyman, a reminder that the first step in winning a lottery is actually buying a ticket. Los Angeles qualified for the playoffs with two days remaining in the regular season.
"They're not really an eight seed," says New Jersey president Lou Lamoriello, reducing Bill Parcells' you-are-what-your-record-says-you-are maxim to rubble. As impenetrable as the NHL standings are to decipher, the Kings most definitely finished eighth in the Western Conference, 16 points behind the Presidents' Trophy-winning Canucks. L.A.'s playoff surge represents not merely a hopeful story -- "We should give hope to all eighth seeds," Kings center Jarret Stoll says -- but its antithesis, a cautionary tale about the diminution of the regular seasons and the ephemeral nature of excellence over six months.
Two days before the Kings played the first regular-season match in their franchise's history, the Cardinals and Red Sox, champions of the 10-team National and American Leagues, met in Game 7 of the 1967 World Series. There were two baseball "playoff" teams then; in October 2012, 10 of 30 will be included in the postseason. Two extra wild cards join the party this fall, which should ratchet up interest in what are still known, anachronistically, as pennant races while also serving to dumb down the system. The additional wild cards actually add incentive to winning a division title because of the play-in requirement -- "Whether you were a wild card or division champ, it really meant nothing more than a T-shirt and a hat," New York Yankees GM Brian Cashman once said -- but the tent flap now is open wider.
If there has been caviling over the heightened possibility that a team with an inferior record will become a champion after a 162-game season, it seems as muted as the concern that six NFL wild card teams, most recently the 2010 Green Bay Packers, have won Super Bowls. The NBA has virtually none of these issues: the only eighth seed to reach the final, the 1999 Knicks, did it in a lockout-shortened season. Meanwhile in the NHL, under the current conference-based format, NHL eighth-seeds have won 10 of 36 first-round series. Six years ago, another No. 8, the Oilers, made it to Game 7 of the final.
"What we've seen here with the Kings is like skiing down a mountain that no one's skied down before," Colin Campbell, the NHL's senior executive vice president of hockey operations, said before Game 4. "Why is an eighth-seed here? Is it timing? Goaltending? Is it good for the game or not? With two weeks to go, (Western Conference finalists Phoenix and L.A.) were both out of the playoffs. One might argue that the four best teams in the East were out early. I don't know if any hockey guy knows what's happening. It's hard to figure out. L.A. went and fired the coach [Terry Murray, in December]. And the best player [captain Dustin Brown] was on the trading block-- or so we heard. It's crazy."
The lunacy has its own inescapable logic.
Lombardi kept Brown, who tore through the final six weeks of the regular season with a 0.95 point-per-game average and was the Kings' most prominent forward in the first three rounds. The coaching change occurred prior to the midway point when Lombardi telephoned Darryl Sutter, who took the call in the barn at his cattle ranch in Viking, Alta., where, he noted at a press conference last week, he was not "shoveling s---," although he quickly added that he had been doing precisely that earlier that day. Kopitar initially had no idea which Sutter brother would be running the bench. (There are six who played in the NHL.) Quick was being historic in his excellence. Finally, there was a fortifying deadline trade for Jeff Carter, which also cleared space for Voynov, a second-pair defenseman, who was languishing in the minors. Carter scored the overtime winner in Game 2 and a power-play goal in Game 3.
So, a karmic convergence of a coaching change, sublime goaltending, rosy health, a rose-petal-strewn path to the final, and some puck-luck in a game that has a pronounced oops factor still was not enough through five games to dispose of New Jersey. But if the eighth-place meek do inherit the hockey Earth, the Kings will be the avatar of their inclusive time, tacitly making the case that the NHL, which from 1979-80 through 1990-91 allowed 16 of its 21 teams into the postseason party, is too elitist. Instead of an early summer, maybe another colossus-in-waiting in the nine-or-10-hole would be capable of making an incandescent run like the Kings.
"We've had a lot of managers ask [in the past about expansion to 20 playoff teams]," Campbell said. "Gary [Bettman, the NHL Commissioner] doesn't want to mess with a good thing right now."