Media outlets are calling the Kings’ sweep of the Blues “improbable.” You have to ask why. Why is this series win seen as unlikely? There are some good reasons, and some unfair ones.
On the one hand, every sweep is improbable, since they don’t often happen. Every lotto win, when it happens to me, is improbable too (especially since I don’t buy tickets). On the face of it, the fact that someone wins is not improbable, just that it’s not some other random guy on the day my number comes up. In hockey, only a small percentage of series are concluded in their minimum possible number of games, hence the label “improbable.”
But when the sweep is seen more roundly as a series win, its improbability lessens. Sure, in the case of the Kings-Blues, St. Louis was expected to win at least a couple of games. But in the end, what’s the difference between winning by a game, 4-3, or by four games uncontested? Nothing. It means going on to the next round either way.
That’s why you’re not likely to see much surprise in the Kings’ faces as they put this series behind them and move on to the next one. They might not have expected to sweep, but they knew they could win, and that’s what they’ve done. They’re not now going to pause to think about how. It’s on to the future.
There’s also the fact that the Kings were the underdog. At least, they were the lower-seeded team. If you didn’t know much about their season, or were observing merely from a distance, you might use another cliché about the club, since they were eighth going into the post-season in the West. You might say they “squeaked” into the playoffs. You’d be inaccurate.
Except for a so-so final week to the season, the LA team might well have won the Western Conference. Two results would have come: that the seedings would have been altogether different, and they might not have made it out of the first round. Of course if that happened, nobody would now be seeing them as unlikely heroes. They would just be a good team which happens to have won some hockey games and lost some. Had they sneaked out the Division win, they would have slotted into the post-season third, and it would have been left to San Jose to deal with Vancouver.
The Sharks might well have lost, and the Kings might have played Phoenix. Thus what looks like it will be the third-round match-up (LA-Coyotes) would have been the Phoenix-LA first-round series, and one of the teams that we can now say with pretty good assurance will go to the Finals would have been golfing long ago. That’s how odd and unlikely it is that a team makes it out of any round, and thus to label any one an underdog or improbable winner ought to be to label everyone that.
One final reason the word might be used is that the Kings have the longest history in the NHL with the least success. “Wait,” you scream. “They’ve been to the Finals!” Once. And even their opponent in round two, fellow second-six team St. Louis, has done that three times. Sure, they did it back in the immediate post-1967 years, when one of the “second six” teams (LA, California, St. Louis, Minnesota, Philly, and Pittsburgh) always got to the Finals. But that could have been LA too. Only it wasn’t.
Their only success, in fact, their only trip past the second round, ever, was in 1993, when they were led by Gretzky. And even that was no likeness to now, as fans will recall that to get into the Finals, the team had to beat Toronto in the semis (now Conference Finals), a feat they would not have to complete today, given the East-West playoff format.
So, improbable it is that they move on. Improbable it was that they beat the Canucks. Perhaps less so, despite the label being used today, that they buried St. Louis in just four, because by now, the LA team has its legs. Whatever holdovers from history their might have been (memories of past wins, and, more, losses) are temporarily put aside. There’s no label for this moment, and there doesn’t need to be. The players just need to bury their heads and play, and that’s what Coach Sutter has them doing.
The next series, though, is anybody’s guess. If it’s Phoenix, travel for both teams will be Eastern Conference easy, leaving whoever wins with a good chance at taking the Stanley Cup, because they won’t go in exhausted. This would be especially true of LA, since they’ve played just nine of a possible fourteen games to this point, and just one game, the final one versus Vancouver, has gone to OT. They’re as rested as in the regular season, maybe more so, since by playing pairs of games in the playoffs in the same place, they haven’t had to travel as much as in the regular season, never to the East, obviously, and with a number of days off between series.
Of course, whether it’s Phoenix or Nashville next round, that series is likely to be bruising and long, though that’s not something LA fans are thinking about right now. In fact, neither are some of the media, as some have already labeled this post-season the one in which the Kings’ improbable run to a championship is happening.
Hold on a minute, there. Hopes are high, and that’s understandable. But in the old days, this series, the one the Kings have just won, was simply the Quarter Finals. It meant nothing to get this far. Montreal did it pretty much every year.
It’s now that the going gets tough, and no matter how much the long-hungry fans of LA want it, getting through the next series is not going to be magic or lucky or easy. It’s going to take everything the team has, and it’s going to cost something. So far, that hasn’t been true, at least not in terms of losing guys. The boat is yet to rock, and when that happens, it will be the test that this team needs to prove their mettle as potential champs.
Either that, or LA will roll through nine or ten more games and to the Stanley Cup win. Now that, my friends, would be improbable.
Follow me @growinguphockey.
And please read “My Country Is Hockey,” no matter whether you’re in LA, Toronto, or wherever.