By Daniel Friedman
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When the Los Angeles Kings completed their stunning comeback and eliminated the San Jose Sharks, everyone wondered how such a feat was possible (though it’s happened before).
As they inch closer to their second Stanley Cup finals appearance in the last three years, I find myself less perplexed as to how they survived that opening round and more curious about how they were ever down 3-0 in the series to begin with.
That seven-game sequence was quite symbolic of the Kings’ modus operandi over the last few years – rise to the occasion when it matters most, and, when it’s least expected.
But why don’t we expect it?
Certainly, the fact that the kings compete in the jam-packed Western Conference plays a part. With teams like the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, and even teams within their own division, including the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks, it’s relatively easy to get lost in the shuffle.
The Kings also haven’t been the best regular season performers and that contributes to how they’re perceived as a hockey club.
In 2012, the team finished eighth in the West. Last season, they were fifth in the conference. This season, they were sixth. Yet, we’ve seen that their position in the standings has been virtually non-indicative of the playoff success they’ve had.
The Kings won the Stanley Cup two years ago; a year ago, they lost in the conference finals. Now, they’re just one win away from avenging that defeat and getting back into the title round. It’s almost unfathomable that they haven’t won their own division – something that hasn’t happened since 1991 – in any of the past three years.
During Game 4, I was conversing with Mark Lazerus, who covers the Blackhawks for the Chicago Sun-Times. As he put it: “(The Kings are the) streakiest team I’ve ever seen. When they’re good, they’re unbelievable. When they’re not…”
Eric Stephens, an Anaheim Ducks beat writer for the Orange County Register had his own take: “(The) thing is, that doesn’t matter to (Darryl) Sutter. (He) just focuses on building them for the playoffs.”
Both Lazerus and Stephens are correct: The Kings are streaky, but are also clearly built to win the marathon – not necessarily the sprint. This team gets to April and it just knows how and when to ratchet up the intensity. Granted, the Kings showed up to the first round later than they would’ve deemed acceptable but, nonetheless, they never shied away from their game and never panicked.
L.A. never gave up on Jonathan Quick (though he’s been yanked twice in these playoffs), while its first- and second-round opponents, San Jose and Anaheim, impulsively started five different goaltenders, combined.
I honestly don’t give a darn what his career save percentage is. Quick is an elite goalie and he has proven it time and time again.
Drew Doughty had 37 points this year – which is quite low by his standards – but he’s exploded in the postseason, notching 14 points in 18 contests. In 68 career playoff games, Doughty has 46 points. Not too shabby.
How about Marian Gaborik? Attempting to bounce back from an injury, he was traded to Los Angeles at the deadline and has been blazing-hot ever since, posting 16 points in 19 regular season games, as well as 16 points in 18 playoff games.
Then there’s Justin Williams, who has as many Game 7 goals (seven) as Wayne Gretzky, Jeremy Roenick and Trevor Linden. If you don’t believe “clutch” exists, just talk to anyone who’s ever played with or against Williams. They’ll tell you.
Stephens’ point about Sutter is an astute one. His facial expressions at any given moment are priceless; his hockey smarts are even more so. The man simply gets it; he understands exactly which buttons to press, regardless of the situation. He knows what it takes to achieve success in the playoffs and that’s evident by his team’s on-ice demeanor and work ethic.
Mike Babcock is widely regarded as the NHL’s top coach, and for good reason, but I’d argue that Sutter is on an equal footing. What more must he prove? He’s right up there. He knows how to strategize, he knows how to motivate and he knows how to win.
People often tell me that, to them, what happens in the regular season is irrelevant because you just have to get into the playoffs to have a shot. I don’t think that’s entirely accurate, especially because most teams build confidence during the season itself and, ultimately, it’s your performance during that time that either does or doesn’t get you into the dance.
But what the Kings have taught us is that they should not be underestimated.
Sometimes, the proof isn’t always in the numbers. You can struggle as a team, you can struggle as an individual player, but it’s what you’re capable of when the pressure mounts. It’s about the intangibles, the things that can’t necessarily be quantified – leadership, heart, grit, clutch.
Again, if you think those are mythical concepts, talk to any player, coach, general manager or scout.
Those are the variables that make the Kings a sleeping giant. We tend to overlook them and instead focus on the flashier teams like the Blackhawks, Sharks and Ducks, squads that are loaded with star power. We don’t always recognize the Kings for what they are: a deep, determined and well-coached unit.
Don’t let the standings fool you, and never mind that they haven’t had home ice advantage at all in these playoffs; the Kings are the real deal and always have been. All this team does is show up to the rink and win big games.
Keep judging them solely by the wins and player stats. Keep referring to Quick as an average goaltender. Keep convincing yourself that intangibles are make-believe.
As for the Kings — they’ll just keep crowning everyone.
Follow Daniel Friedman on Twitter @DFriedmanOnNYI
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