Kings-Devils: No Way It’s Six

Anticipation. Remember the old ketchup commercial, where the stuff refuses to come out fast? The song talks about anticipation, and waiting. That’s how hockey fans feel right now, and especially LA Kings’ fans. It hasn’t been two months they’ve waited, or a year, but twenty. Well, nearly.

And during that time, they have had to think back on the Billy Buckner-like moment that, many feel, cost them their last, and only, Stanley Cup final series. The McSorley stick incident. What some who have come lately to the game don’t realize is that the penalty for an illegal curve didn’t happen late in the series, but rather in game two. There was plenty of time to recover; they just didn’t.

Then again, Montreal was perhaps fated to that win, as their record of playing and winning overtime games would attest. In fact, in the final series, three of the games (two, three, and four) went to OT. Montreal won all three of those and the fifth game also to take the series at home.

Does any of that matter nineteen years later? For those on the East coast, whose hockey experience since that time has seen the Rangers, Devils, Hurricanes, Lightening, Bruins, and Penguins win the Cup, no. Whatever their affiliation as fans, they’ve had the thing in their backyard all those different times.

In LA, it’s different. The single Cup to have come way West was Anaheim’s in 2007, a bitter drink to swill for Angeleno hockey fans, who have, if nothing else, been loyal all these years. Of course, the trophy has been in the neighborhood a couple of times, including with Colorado in 1996 and 2000. But that team has bitter memories for the Kings, who pushed the Avs to a seventh game in both 2001 and 2002 only to lose both times.

That, in a nutshell, tells the story of this year’s progress to the finals in reverse. The Kings could have easily bowed out early. Beating Vancouver, in fact, would have been enough to call the year a success. Revenge for the past, the uncrowning of Luongo. These would have been sweet memories for LA hockey fans.

Even getting to round three might have satisfied, because it hadn’t been done for so long. But when the cards were dealt and it was Phoenix, rather than a more powerful West coast team, who was to be the third opponent, it looked suddenly like 2001, where opportunity knocked in the form of the Kings beating favorite Detroit—only in the opposite, with things having played out in a way that nobody could have predicted.

So here we are on the edge of a second LA final. West coast fans are hungry, and even a few Anaheim backers are rediscovering their roots on the other side of the “orange curtain,” since they started out hockey fans way back when the only California teams were the Kings and the Golden Seals.

East coast fans, meanwhile, are marveling at who the Devils have drawn, and at the Devils having made it there themselves. So how to read things:

Normally, the team coming across the country to start the series would have the disadvantage. However, the Kings have not lost an away game all playoffs, nor have they played all that many games, nor road games. So there’s no way they’re tired. Call it even on this score, with the possibility that the Kings drop a game in Jersey due to rust.

The goalie who is better generally wins the series. In this case, you’ve got young turk against old guard. A year ago, Brodeur might have been seen as hopeful but hopeless, past his prime. But as one knowledgeable fan said this week, “He’s up to his old tricks.” On the other hand, Jonathan Quick is as cool as they come, and he has said to me before that he never, ever looks to the other end of the ice to see what they other guy is doing. It just isn’t relevant to him. Call this one even, assuming that Quick doesn’t crack when he realizes what he’s in the midst of accomplishing.

And as a side note to that, maybe edge your bets towards Quick, who, if he read this morning, would have seen a headline about him that says something about people just starting to notice his play.

Just starting to notice? Where have you East-coasters been all season? This guy gave the Kings one-goal victory after one-goal victory. If anyone’s been instrumental, he’s the guy. But goalies have a long history of being ignored outside of the LA region. Rogie Vachon is not in the Hall of Fame. Case closed.

The team which is more beat up is often the one who bows first. The Kings, in fact, are getting a guy back in Simon Gagne, who hasn’t played since the day after Christmas. Other than that, the teams look healthy. Perhaps the big question here is whether Gagne’s return disrupts a Kings’ lineup that has been clicking. Smart money says that it’s not going to be something Sutter lets happen. He’s too much a big-picture guy for that.

Overconfidence is sometimes an issue, as it was when a completely insolent, overstuffed Ottawa team came West in 2007 to take on the Ducks. On the Sunday media day before the Finals began, they showed up in shorts, sandals, pink shirts, all kinds of fancy sunglasses, like they’d raided the tourist shops on Venice Beach. They stunk out the place during the series and lost in five. But neither of these teams seems particularly foolish on this account.

Perhaps the Kings are tempted to it, or perhaps they will be shaken should they not gain the game or two lead they have enjoyed in prior series. In fact, that may be the story here: no adversity has challenged the LA team thus far. If it does, what will their response be?

How about hunger? The Kings don’t have an appetite that stretches back to 1993, despite players citing that time in interviews. Most of them were in grade one in that year. But this team has, in its Captain Dustin Brown, a guy who has built and shared hunger over the past several years. New players have had to go through him to learn the requisite attitude upon entry into the organization, and when the team picked up Richards and Gagne, arguably better players than Brown, they didn’t allow themselves to bow to superstar-itis and give the captaincy away.

Brown and the core—Stoll, Green, Doughty, et al—have sustained and built an appetite. The only surprise might be, after the up and down season they had, that they have the chance to sate it this year. Most would likely have predicted a series or two this year in preparation for a proper run next. But here they are. What happens if they suddenly realize what’s going on?

On the other side of it, the Devils have history that tells them how to win, and they’ve got Ilya Kovalchuk and a GM who has a whole lot riding on his play. But isn’t he played off against Richards and Gagne in the high-stakes trades game? Again, even up.

So who’s going to win the Stanley Cup? The one thing you can say is that there’s probably never going to be a year when it’s more likely for the Kings to do it. They’ve got the team, they’ve killed a giant already, they’re as rested as could possibly happen for a left-coast team (except if they had played San Jose instead of St. Louis, but the lack of games makes up for that, and Phoenix, though they flew there, could have been a bus ride), and there’s no pressure in games one and two.

Games three and four might just be harder for the LA squad, since they’re sure to feel that burden of expectation from the home crowd, which will be filled with faces that do have a twenty-year hunger, and some of them, a forty-five year one.

Predictions? It’s going to be someone in five or a seven-game OT-filled series. Sorry, LA fans, but you’re not going to see the Cup presented on your ice, even if your team wins.

Brian’s book My Country Is Hockey is out now. Pick it up for something to keep your hockey fires burning while you’re tanning on the beach this summer.


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