Outshot, outskated and outmaneuvered, only one man stood between NHL history and a return trip to St. Louis.
Jonathan Quick obviously doesn't dig the Arch.
If The Avengers need another superhero, they may have found one in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Who cares if the Hulk can fling tanks and tear apart city streets? Let’s see any one of them stops 96 out of 102 shots for a .941 save percentage and a 1.50 GAA.
If you still hold the misguided belief that Mr. Quick isn’t the best goalie in the NHL, look no further than Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. Down one goal and facing elimination, the Blues attacked—12 times to be exact. St. Louis outshot the Kings 12-1 in the second period, but when the blizzard of pucks mercifully ceased at the sound of the horn, the score stubbornly remained 2-1 in Los Angeles’ favor.
Credit the Blues. Down a perilous 3-0 in the series, St. Louis never stopped believing and they never stopped fighting. They were much better at landing punches than goals, however, and were never able to checkmate the King standing on the other end.
As Dustin Brown came streaking down the ice in the waning seconds of the game, the fans were at a loss for words. This wasn’t Kobe hitting the game-winning shot or Magic feeding Kareem for a breathtaking jam. The breakaway and the open net was the same, but for the first time since “The Great One” landed east of Hollywood, Basketball Haven suddenly transformed into Los Angeles Hockey Place.
20,000 white towels twirled in unison. The jubilation and frantic scrum which followed was deafening. The Blues stared blankly from the bench as the Kings celebrated on the ice and saluted the sea of purple and black jerseys.
This was only the beginning.
As a three-seed, the Coyotes’ postseason run—though remarkable—wasn’t unprecedented. But the Kings? A team that ended the season with a pair of overtime losses, lacked a premier scorer and backpedaled into the playoffs by way of a parlay?
How are they in this position?
The Kings goalie is everything his name indicates. He drops, slides and reacts with explosive bursts of speed—one almost gets the feeling that a puck traveling at 100 MPH looks like a passing butterfly to Quick. He’s a light sleeper during games, constantly scanning the ice from his patented low crouch and shifting laterally between the pipes like a plastic foosball figure.
Most importantly, the 26-year-old goaltender possesses the three Ds normally bestowed upon a closure in baseball: dominate, defend and deliver.
Earlier, I mentioned that Quick should join The Avengers. It’s very possible that he could already be a member of “The Fraternity.”
Facing the Blues in a close-out game, Quick made 23 saves (the goal post and the crossbar made two) in a defensive battle that often resembled a Baltimore Ravens/Pittsburgh Steelers game. The Steel Curtain was penetrated only once—a scorching shot that whizzed past Quick’s ear in the first period.
It was the final goal St. Louis would score on the season.
For a team that lived and died playing defense 82 times out of the year, their demise came at the hands of a sturdier wall on the opposite side.
When the final scramble for the puck ended, the Kings became the first eighth-seeded team in NHL history to oust the top two teams in the playoffs. A lot of people have called it a fluke.
I call it nonsense.
The Kings didn’t just beat their opponents this postseason, they obliterated them.
Here’s how each series went down. No. 1: Kings win the first three games. No. 2: Opponent stages a desperate last stand. No. 3: Kings crush the rebellion with one swift stroke.
Okay, the last one was from Star Wars, but it was still a remarkable feat considering how difficult it’s been lately for teams to close out a series after taking a 3-0 lead.
LA is 8-1 this postseason and a perfect 5-0 on the road. They only trailed once against the Blues (conceding the first goal of the series in Game 1) and have allowed just 14 goals in nine games.
They dominated by heeding the advice of the legendary Herb Brooks: “Play your game.” It’s a great philosophy. Not just in sports, but life in general. Stick to what you're good at. The Kings are awfully good at playing defense. The swarming black jerseys muzzled the Blues’ power play to a collective 0-for-17 in the series and never allowed more than 29 shots on goal.
They also scored. Man, did they score.
At times, it felt like No. 99 was back on the ice for LA. The 29th-ranked offense in the NHL put up goals faster than Ilya Bryzgalov could give them up. How long this will last is anyone's guess.The fans currently on the bandwagon are inwardly hoping until it snows in Pasadena.
For the Kings, the hard part may seem over given the relative ease with which they dispatched the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds in the Western Conference, but their biggest challenge lies ahead as they face off against their division rivals for a chance to play for Lord Stanley’s biggest drinking mug.
While the Coyotes finished just two points ahead of the Kings in the regular season, they come into Sunday’s series with two extra advantages: a chip on their shoulder and one fired-up goalie.
Mike Smith has been just as good if not better than Quick this season, and he seems more determined than ever to prove that Vezina voting is as meaningless and manipulative as an episode of the reality show The Bachelor.
Finishing third in the league in saves and fourth in save percentage, Smith has guided the Coyotes well past expectations and looks poised to make a statement to the NHL: leave hockey in the desert.
Quick might be facing easier shots against the 'Yotes than he did against the Blues and the Canucks, but he’ll be under constant pressure to stop every one of them with Smith behind the net. One goal could feel like three in what is sure to be a scoring stasis for the next few games.
The Kings will have to battle to earn their crown, but I’m putting my faith in their last line of defense.
Kings in seven.