And all that the Hollywood hockey faithful could reasonably request was a New Year’s resolution from their franchise to promptly get back to playoff contention.
Rarely does one actually fulfill any such New Year’s resolution, let alone take it above and beyond. But as evidenced by Monday night’s late spring fiesta on Figueroa, that was exactly what Sutter and the Kings have done in less than six months of collaboration.
Together, they delivered the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 45 years of operation and became the first team seeded eighth in a conference to win the title. And they did it through a relatively quick 20 games, the most efficient championship run since the Detroit Red Wings went an identical 16-4 in 1997.
In addition, Sutter became the NHL’s third midseason-coaching replacement in the last 12 seasons to win a title without hesitation.
And to think that when the alliance began, already with 33 games off the docket and 49 yet to come, the Kings were an iffy 15-14-4 and five points out of a playoff spot. They had just discharged head coach Terry Murray and split their four games under interim replacement John Stevens, accruing a 14-6 scoring difference in favor of the opponent.
For the first two nights with Sutter, the Kings pushed their two intrastate rivals to a shootout, beating the visiting Anaheim Ducks and settling for one point against the host San Jose Sharks. Upon returning from a two-day respite, they went 3-0-1 over a four-game slate between Christmas and New Year’s.
Ultimately, it would take nine games under Sutter’s supervision for Los Angeles to lose a regulation decision. Following that 1-0 loss to Columbus, they went on another unbeaten streak at 3-0-3.
The Kings would not lose consecutive games on Sutter’s watch until a set of back-to-back road games in two different time zones. They spilled a 1-0 decision in St. Louis Feb. 3 and a 2-1 outcome in Carolina Feb. 4.
But by then, with now 52 games finished and 30 to go, they were 28-22-2 and in a virtual tie for the last available playoff spot. Through the homestretch, the Kings only had to endure two more pairs of consecutive regulation losses as they engaged the Sharks, Phoenix Coyotes and Dallas Stars in an epic footrace that would potentially spell the difference between home ice for the first round and a postseason no-show.
Winning 15 of their last 30 games, including 13 in regulation and six in a row in mid-March, they locked away that last available seed.
Only a pair of shootout losses in a home-and-home set with San Jose barred Los Angeles from going any higher in the bracket. But the battle-tested Kings would not lose consecutive games again until they were one win away from the Cup.
Sutter inevitably instilled an inclination to click in games that heavily influenced the continuation of one’s season, which is the very nature of any postseason contest.
Other than one misstep in the first round versus Vancouver and the conference finals against Phoenix when they had a chance to sweep, the Kings smoothly filled out their passports to the championship series.
With the stakes upgraded from a playoff spot to a playoff championship, the Kings’ poise was tested once again after they sculpted their fourth consecutive 3-0 series lead. The opposing New Jersey Devils retorted with 3-1 and 2-1 victories in Games 4 and 5, respectively.
The inevitable consequence was a stream of doubt not unlike the one that glowered over L.A. at the end of March and into the first week of April. Just as the Kings had a maximum of three chances to ensure their playoff berth at that time, they now had two opportunities to ensure their title while averting a mortifying collapse.
Sutter did his part to ensure a favorable outcome once more. The Kings held New Jersey at bay early to forge a classic arm-wrestling match before sniffing out the seams and popping open a 3-0 lead when the desperate Devils detonated their discipline.
Otherworldly goaltender Jonathan Quick, the team’s sole saving grace before Sutter came in and kicked in, had not allowed four goals in a postseason game yet. When Jeff Carter connected early in the second period for a 4-0 advantage, it was worth noting that Quick had yielded five goals only once in the 2011-12 campaign.
Yet the Kings continued to press, even after an empty-netter made it 5-1. Sutter’s evident encouragement to play the full 60 minutes showed in the form of Matt Greene’s homeward-bound point blast that finalized the 6-1 result with 3:30 to spare.
From there, just as they had ensured their playoff spot with three days to go in the regular season, the Kings had more than ensured their championship with three minutes to go in the final game.
Not bad for a coach who has been on the job 174 days.