The Los Angeles Kings have become a force of nature in the 2012 playoffs. With a 4-0 victory Monday, they took a 3-0 series lead in the Stanley Cup Final. The New Jersey Devils ought to be quaking in their boots. It feels inevitable that the Kings will win the first title in franchise history. It feels like the L.A. sports landscape is about to change.
"If we win one more game," said Kings winger Dustin Penner, pausing for emphasis, "I hope the San Andreas fault can handle it."
Southern California has won the Stanley Cup before. Penner hoisted it with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007. But the Ducks were born in 1993 and went to the Cup final in 2003. They never really knew suffering.
The Kings were born in 1967. They had the Wayne Gretzky era, making hockey cool in Hollywood, making the Cup final in '93. But that's about it. After '93, they won 14 playoff games in 17 seasons.
And now this. They have won 15 playoff games in one postseason, and inexplicably, they have done it in a way that compares to one of Gretzky's other teams, the 1988 Edmonton Oilers. The Kings are 15-2. Win Game 4 on Wednesday night, and they can tie those Oilers' 16-2 record, the best the NHL has seen since it went to four best-of-7 playoff rounds in '87.
"Every now and then, you see somebody play unreal, and right now, they're right at the top of their game," Gretzky told Yahoo! Sports seconds after the final horn sounded. "They're unbelievable right now."
Do they compare to the '88 Oilers?
"Oh, you can never compare," said Gretzky, who dropped the ceremonial first puck Monday. "But this is a really good team. They're one win away from doing something really, really special. They deserve all the credit they are getting."
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The Kings don't compare to the '88 Oilers. They do not have Gretzky, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Kevin Lowe and company, and they are not about to win their fourth Cup in five years. But that is why they deserve so much credit.
They play in a league with a salary cap, at a time when the competition is tighter than ever before. They underachieved during the regular season and finished second-to-last in the league in scoring. They earned the eighth and final playoff spot in the West.
Then they became the first team ever to knock off the top seeds in a row – one, two, three. Then they went 10-0 on the road, setting the NHL record for a road winning streak in the playoffs, tying the NHL record for total road wins in the playoffs.
Now they have become the first team to start four consecutive series 3-0. And unless the Devils become only the fourth team ever to rally from a 3-0 deficit – and the first to do it in the final since 1942 – the Kings will become the first No. 8 seed to win the Cup.
Messier, in town for an awards announcement, echoed Gretzky. "I think in today's parity, with the way the game is right now, 10 wins in a row on the road in the playoffs, losing two games to this point, is pretty remarkable," he said.
Say what you want about L.A. The Kings have had a hardcore fan base. Walking to the game Monday, there were hundreds of jerseys representing the scope of 45 years – the original Forum Blue and Gold, the first edition black and white, the royal purple and black, the modern colors.
Staples Center put on a show, with glow sticks and lasers, and there were celebrities. Alyssa Milano. L.L. Cool J. David Beckham. But while Tony Robbins was there, the real motivational leader was Darryl Sutter behind the Kings bench. And while Al Michaels was in the crowd, maybe he should have been in the broadcast booth. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!
The story of the game was the story of the Kings' season. They looked like they were in trouble early, killing a 5-on-3 disadvantage. Goaltender Jonathan Quick kept them in it, making save after save while the game was scoreless. At the other end, they kept banging away at Martin Brodeur and whacked one in, on a third- or fourth-chance rebound by defenseman Alec Martinez. Finally, they came alive and looked unstoppable.
Want proof the Kings are playing out of their minds? Captain Dustin Brown is usually a shoot-first kind of guy. He isn't known for his vision or passing. But rushing down the right wing, he sensed Anze Kopitar was open on the left wing and threw the puck across. Bang, it was 2-0.
Mike Richards and Jeff Carter – the dynamic duo dumped by the Philadelphia Flyers last summer – made it 3-0, Richards with the pass, Carter with the goal. Justin Williams added another goal, and the fans roared to the finish.
The Kings are trying to stay focused. They're trying to block out everything but the task at hand. But you can only block out so much at a time like this. "You can feel it," Penner said. "You can't block out 19,000 people yelling, 'We want the Cup!' "
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Up on the wall at Staples hang the 11 championship banners the NBA’s Lakers have won in Los Angeles. Next to them are only two Kings banners – one for their 1993 conference title, one for their '91 division title. Nothing more.
Kopitar said that in his six years with the Kings, "it hasn't been the brightest of L.A. being a hockey town." There is only one way to change that. "You gotta win to be anybody in this town," Brown said. "Right now the hockey team is winning, so it's a hockey town."
Jim Fox spent his entire 10-year NHL career with the Kings. A three-time 30-goal scorer, he ranks eighth on their all-time scoring list. He has spent 22 seasons as their TV color commentator.
Fox said if the Kings win one more game, it will be a reward for the hardcore fans who have waited so long. It will lead to the biggest growth spurt in local youth hockey since Gretzky's arrival. Fox just emceed an event for the Los Angeles Junior Kings, and already they have seen a big increase in enrollment.
"It catches the attention of everyone," Fox said. "In '93, it was, 'I want to be like Gretzky. I want to be like [Luc] Robitaille.' Now, hopefully in 2012, it will be, 'I want to be like Kopitar. I want to be like Quick. I want to be like Brown.' "
If the Kings win one more game, it will be a dream come true for all the grown men who ever skated for them and wanted to be champions.
"Instead of focusing on the negatives that have happened in the past, wipe the slate clean," Fox said, his eyes a touch red and moist, his voice halting just a bit. "It will be emotional. I think it's going to be …
"If it happens …"
"You know, in the hockey sense, we've suffered with the fans," he said. "That would end."
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