Stanley Cup Finals 2012: An L.A. Kings Fan's Perspective on Improbable Cup Run
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I have to be honest, before August 9, 1988, I could care less about hockey and only knew it as the sport that we beat the Russians in back in 1980. You see, that clip got a lot of airtime in the 1980s.
See, my rationale was simple: I loved a couple of L.A. teams already (the Raiders and the Lakers) and the Kings were a blend of both.
First, the Kings switched their color scheme to black and silver that mirrored the Raiders.
Second, they played their home games at the Great Western Forum, which to me was strictly the home of the "Showtime" Lakers of Magic Johnson and James Worthy.
So, there was an easy call to make in choosing the Kings.
The only problem was, they did not immediately become a great hockey team.
Sure, they made playoff appearances, but they acquired the best player in the world! That was supposed to translate into championships.
To make it worse, I watched the Gretzky-less Oilers win the Stanley Cup in 1990 (ironically, led by an inspired goalie named Bill Ranford) after eliminating the Kings in the playoff division finals.
Even after their first division title in 1991, it was not until the hire of Barry Melrose in 1992 that things improbably changed.
For starters, Gretzky was no longer the best player on the team. That was Luc Robitaille.
What I remember was that the Kings were a lot more physical. They led the NHL in penalties by far and this was definitely evident in my favorite player, Marty McSorley.
McSorley never saw a fight he did not like and I think being a relative novice, I enjoyed that. Even if he was basically a goon.
But that 1993 team was special because it was also resilient.
They were underdogs to Calgary. They beat 'em, then they beat Vancouver, too. The then Campbell Conference finals against Toronto was the turning point for me as a fan.
Some people think it was the hardest-hitting, seven-game series in NHL history. The Maple Leafs had a great team. Doug Gilmour, Wendel Clark, defensemen Todd Gill, Dave Ellett and Felix "The Cat" Potvin in net.
The series lived up to the hype.
Over seven games, there was hard hitting, dramatic scoring and controversy. Most notably, the alleged high-sticking penalty Wayne Gretzky was not called on against Gilmour in Game 6.
Instead, Gretzky won the game in overtime tying the series at three. The Kings then beat Toronto in the Maple Leaf Gardens 5-4 to advance to their first ever Stanley Cup.
And any Kings fan knows the agony of the '93 Cup Finals.
The McSorley illegal stick penalty. The early OT losses in both Games 2 and 3. And John LeClair essentially putting the series on ice with his second straight OT goal in Game 4. The great run ended in five games. And the team has not really been the same since.
The team slipped to 10th in the conference in 1994, fired Melrose, missed the playoffs again in 1995 and then traded Gretzky to St. Louis in February of 1996. Even with Rob Blake's brilliance, the team would not make the playoffs again until 1998.
There was a brief moment of glory, though.
In 2001, the Kings surprised pretty much everyone outside of their locker room by beating the powerful Detroit Red Wings in six games after falling behind 2-0 in the series.
It was the highlight of my adult life as a Kings fan seeing the fans celebrate at Staples as Adam Deadmarsh won the series with his OT goal.
I really thought this team could make a deep push for the Stanley Cup that year. So, losing to the eventual champions (Colorado) in seven games was nothing to be ashamed of.
Having said all of this, rooting for the Kings has been largely fruitless until the last couple of years.
There have been some good players over the last decade or so (Jamie Storr in net, Ziggy Palffy and Mattias Nordstrom), but I did not get the sense this team was truly a contender until 2011.
That is when the pieces from all that losing came together.
Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson became the cornerstone of a good team.
And the glue was Anze Kopitar, my favorite Kings player since Gretzky and the most underrated player in the game for my money. He is a superstar, but it took playing on a big stage for everyone to see that.
Even though the Kings lost to the Sharks in a frustrating 2011 exit, I got the feeling 2012 would be a big year.
Too bad it did not start that way.
All it took was Terry Murray getting canned and Darryl Sutter coming in to change the direction of everything in Los Angeles for hockey. Watching that meltdown to go from third to eighth in the West, I figured Vancouver would take the Kings out in five or six games. I had seen that script before.
But I did not see any of this coming.
Not the brilliance of Jonathan Quick.
Not the big moment brilliance of IHOP's finest, Dustin "Pancakes" Penner.
Not the leadership, grit and resourcefulness of captain Dustin Brown.
Quite simply, over the last five weeks, the Kings have been the best team in hockey. And I defy anyone who has watched this team more than those last five weeks to tell me they saw it coming.
To beat the Canucks in five games was beyond the scope of what I expected. In this or the next lifetime.
But then, they just completely took apart a very good team in the St. Louis Blues.
A four-game sweep of one of the five best teams in hockey?
That is when I figured this was series. My thought was that Phoenix presented a challenge in that they are so familiar being a divisional opponent and they also had a hot goalie in Mike Smith.
And yet, it played out much like the Vancouver series did.
There were times when the teams seemed evenly matched, but the Kings were just better.
At this point, it really does not matter where it came from or how or why. To close out the Coyotes in five games to win the West, to reach the Stanley Cup Finals after being in the wilderness for almost 20 years, it is like found money.
Obviously, I will be disappointed if they do not close this out.
The Devils are a battle-tested team, they have a top-five, all-time goaltender in Martin Brodeur and they can score.
But right now, to be honest, it feels like this is almost fated to happen.
After 45 years as a team and 24 years for me as a fan, this is the best chance to see the L.A. Kings hoist the Stanley Cup.
And you can bet, after all this time, I will be one of the first on Figueroa if it really does happen.
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