By Stu Hackel
Having dusted the Phoenix Coyotes in somewhat dominant fashion over five games, the Los Angeles Kings reached the Stanley Cup Final for only the second time in franchise history, and first since 1993. Most people will have them favored to win the Cup on the strength of their convincing first three rounds although -- as good as they've been, and they've been very good -- nothing is ever certain in the postseason. Any Kings fan who is already wondering about the championship parade route runs the very real risk of underestimating how difficult the last four victories of the season can be.
It's very tempting to pre-award the Cup to the Kings. They have steamrolled through the West, dropping only two of 14 games while knocking off the first, second and third seeds. That's unprecedented, as has been widely noted. They are healthy, rested and talented. They are well-coached and hungry. They have outstanding goaltending and a big mobile defense. They play a physical brand of hockey that has allowed them to give themselves room against tight-checking playoff foes and barge to the net. They've been flawless on the road. They're getting contributions from everyone. They're excellent -- even dangerous -- killing penalties. They've been impressive.
But other favored teams have been there and done that and come away without the Cup. The Eric Lindros-era Flyers of 1997 come immediately to mind. They were the "smart pick" against the Red Wings in the final, but were jolted as they dropped four straight before they knew what had happened. The signature play of the series was this goal by Darren McCarty in Game 4.
Two years earlier, the Wings themselves had the same thing happen to them against the Devils. Although overwhelmingly picked to beat the Devils, New Jersey ran their neutral zone trap to perfection, befuddling the Wings into turnovers and destroying them in transition, vanquishing Detroit in four games, with this Game 2 goal by Scott Niedermayer to tie the game in the third period providing a big shocker from which the Wings never recovered.
No, the Kings are not the '95 Wings nor the '97 Flyers. Those teams had flaws that the opposing coaches exploited. But no club is perfect and you can bet that advance scouts from both the Rangers and Devils have been closely watching L.A.'s games to discern their weaknesses (we'll try to discern them when we go through our "Keys to the Cup" next week).
One thing that some people perceive as a positive in the Kings' favor could potentially turn against them. While the Canucks, Blues and Coyotes were top seeds, they didn't exactly play terrific hockey against Los Angeles and it's not inappropriate to raise the question of whether the Kings have been battle-hardened this spring, having faced little adversity in their path to the final. This isn't to take anything away from them. They've looked terrific in the first three rounds, and if you are that much better than your opponent, that's just the way it is.
But the Canucks were without Daniel Sedin for the first three games -- all losses -- and Ryan Kesler was less than 100 percent in the last quarter of the season with a bad shoulder that requires surgery. They may have finished first overall and won eight of nine heading into the playoffs, but critics pointed to the quality of their opposition down the stretch and noted that prior to that, Vancouver had played quite poorly and seemed in disarray, going 5-7-3 in the prior month. Perhaps they weren't as strong as their top seed suggested.
The Blues, who were a great story all season, did fade in the stretch run, gaining only seven of their last possible 16 points. After downing the Sharks -- a team that needs a retooling and is no longer the NHL force it had been -- the Blues met the Kings without half of their outstanding goalie tandem, the injured Jaro Halak, and that left coach Ken Hitchcock with nowhere to go when Brian Elliott played below par. In one sense, this series only lasted four periods: After losing Game 1 on a last-minute second period shortanded goal by Matt Greene and clinched by a last minute third period Dustin Penner goal, the shaken Blues came out for Game 2 and were brutal, giving up four goals in the first period. Stunned by that onslaught, they were really never in the game or the series after that as the Kings swept them.
The Coyotes, by their own admission, are not an NHL powerhouse. They won most games on the strength of Mike Smith's excellent goaltending and, in coach Dave Tippett's words, by just "hanging around" until they could catch a break, something they can do well. They would not have downed the Blackhawks had Smith not been otherworldly, and they knocked off a Predators team distracted by the suspensions of their top two offensive players for breaking curfew to enjoy the nightlife on the road. Against the Kings, when the team in front of him faltered and Smith gave up some uncharacteristic weak goals, the Coyotes proved to be an underwhleming match.
Whether the Kings' first three foes provided the kind of tests that will prepare them for the final won't be known until the puck drops on Wednesday night. And whoever they play, the Rangers or the Devils, is almost certain to be banged up from the rugged roads they've taken to get to the fourth round. Those teams have their own baggage that they'll be carrying into Game 1 and beyond.
To some, what I've written here will look like East Coast bias -- something I do believe exists in sports coverage -- but in reality, this was a relatively easy path to the final for Los Angeles. Now, it may or may not have a bearing on how things play out. Make no mistake, the Kings are a very formidable team with obvious strengths from goalie Jonathan Quick on out and they will have a lot going for them regardless of which Eastern foe they encounter. They may, in fact, have been very well prepared by the competition they faced in the first three rounds and the comparative ease with which they eliminated those clubs could be an accurate reflection of just how good they truly are. But you really can't know for sure until the two finalists lace them up and you see what they have to offer each other. That's why we don't make any predictions on these series. That's why they play the games.