Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Los Angeles Kings: 2012 Stanley Cup Champions

The 2012 Cup Champion Kings

Captain Dustin Brown and Lord Stanley's Mug
Well, they did it. Last night the Los Angeles Kings won a most improbable Stanley Cup, becoming the first team ever to finish the season as a number-8 seed and go on to win the championship. (In point of fact, whichever team had won this series would have been the lowest-ranked team ever to win a Cup, so the whole post-season has been pretty unusual.) But it's not simply that they won; rather, it's how they won that is so amazing. Their record, in a era of incredible parity in the NHL, was an astounding 16-4 including a ridiculous 10-1 on the road. They won last night's Game Six by a score of 6-1, a score that very much reflected the Kings' dominance of that game, the series and the entire playoffs. Along the way they knocked off the number one seed in their conference 4-1; the number two seed 4-0; the number three seed 4-1. They led every single series they played in by three games to none. They didn't even trail in a single game of the finals until Game Four. On and on and on go the staggering details of their crushing dominance of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs. They are a huge, fast, mobile, pounding, disciplined hockey club that was perfectly designed for post-season hockey and they were unstoppable.

And I called this win two months ago. Truth be told, I have been saying the Kings were a dangerous Cup contender for a couple of years now, but stopped short of actually predicting they would win until this year. If only I had put money on it, somehow. In my blog posts about Round One, Round Two, Round Three and, ultimately, the Finals I stated repeatedly that I thought that this was "the Kings' year". They won the first three series in far fewer games than I had predicted, though, because as much as I thought this team was the odds-on favourite to win it all, I had no idea they were going to so completely crush the spirits of the three top teams in the Western Conference. And then in my post about the final round, I said this:
I am picking the Los Angeles Kings to win their first-ever Stanley Cup at home in the Staples Centre on Monday, June 11, 2012.
Yup. Pretty proud of myself for that one.

Goalie Jonathan Quick: playoff MVP
The Conn Smythe Trophy (awarded to playoff MVP) went to Jonathan Quick. He seemed to be the consensus pick but I think this may have been the tightest race that I have ever seen for that award. I thought the man you see holding the Cup in the picture above - captain Dustin Brown - had a pretty good shot at the Smythe. He was easily the MVP of the first two rounds and last night, in the biggest game they have ever played as a team, he opened the scoring with his first-ever goal against New Jersey and followed that up with two assists on the next three goals. He had my vote, as amazing as Quick was. Anze Kopitar had garnered some support, too, but he was pretty quiet in the Finals. (Side note: the trophies awarded by the NHL each year are hands down the most beautiful pieces of "hardware" in all of professional sports - look at that gorgeous Conn Smythe trophy!) Of course, I think the best all-around player on the Kings every single game of the playoffs was Drew Doughty, a player I desperately wanted my own Leafs to draft in 2008. And then there was Kenora boy Mike Richards. Amazingly, he was in exactly the same situation two years earlier as captain of the Philadelphia Flyers when they earned the 8th seed in a shootout on the last day of the season and made it all the way to the finals, losing to the Chicago Black Hawks in six games. Perhaps drawing on that experience, Richards was on the winning side this time and now has a Stanley Cup to go along with his World Junior and Olympic gold medals, a Memorial Cup and a Calder Cup. Pretty good resume all in all.

New Jersey will likely complain for a long time about this call in the first period last night, but I'm not buying it. Steve Bernier hammered Rob Scuderi into the boards from behind and was given an entirely-deserved (but still, a gutsy call by the ref) game misconduct for boarding. The Kings scored three times on that five-minute power play and that was really all there was to it. They scored another very early in the second and the Devils were done. It looked for a while like the disgusting goonery of the first round might return with a vengeance, but a couple of well-timed misconduct penalties by the refs put an end to that. Eventually all that was left was the countdown to this moment of pure, unbridled joy that anyone who has ever played in and won a championship game can relate to implicitly:

Drew Doughty (left) and Jonathan Quick at the final buzzer

Martin Brodeur and Jonathan Quick
Then it was time for what I consider to be the greatest tradition in sports: the post-series handshake line. After two professional hockey teams batter and pound the hell out of each other for between four and seven games they line up and shake hands and congratulate each other on a battle well fought. It never, ever gets old for me. (In fact, we shake hands at the end of every game we play in our adult hockey leagues.) In this particular hand-shaking ritual last night, the classy and incomparable Martin Brodeur, longtime goalie for the Devils, stopped for several moments when he came to Quick, embracing him and patting him on the shoulder and sharing a moment that likely only two netminders can truly share. It was very special to watch - even more so if you stop to think that last night may have been the final game of Martin Brodeur's incredible career. He has played 21 seasons in the NHL and all of them with the New Jersey Devils. He has won three Stanley Cups and two Olympic gold medals. He is the all-time leader in career shutouts in both the regular season and the playoffs and the regular-season wins leader. He has scored a goal (!) in both the regular season and post season. He is, quite simply, one of the greatest goalies who ever lived - and, apparently, Quick told him in that handshake line that he should not retire because "the game wouldn't be the same without [him]". However, he turned 40 this year and his contract has expired, making him a free agent. My personal feeling is that it will come down to what happens with the almost certain labour strife that is imminent in the NHL. If another season is lost to lockout or strike, I think it might well affect the decisions of not only Brodeur but also several other players who are near the end of their career. But the long and the short of it is this: the game last night might be the last NHL game played for many, many months.

But if that's true, if Donald Fehr (who led the Major League Baseball Players Union to the 1994 strike that cancelled the World Series for the first time in 90 years) is his usual intractable self and helps bring about the second missed season in nine years, then at least we'll still have this memory of the end of the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs:

Looks to me like it was worth the wait

And whenever the NHL finally resumes, there will now only be two teams tied with the longest Cup-less drought: the St. Louis Blues and the Toronto Maple Leafs. I pray that Brian Burke's collar just got a little bit tighter.

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