The Los Angeles Kings entered the 2011-12 season as one of the favorites to win the Stanley Cup, but a poor start and a mediocre first half of the year put them in an intense playoff race during the final weeks of the regular season.
Thanks to the magnificent play of star goaltender Jonathan Quick, the Kings were able to overcome their offensive struggles and get into the playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. From that point on, the Kings became the first No. 8 to win the Stanley Cup, beating the top three seeds in the West en route to the team's first ever championship.
Even though they were an eighth seed, the Kings had the talent of a legitimate Stanley Cup contender—one who underachieved for most of the season. However, they did enter the playoffs as a sleeper, since their first-round opponent was the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks, who were also the defending conference champions.
Which sleeper team will make a Stanley Cup run?
This season's edition of the New York Rangers is becoming very similar to last year's Kings. The Blueshirts came into this season as the favorite among many to win the Eastern Conference, but an underwhelming start to the year and their inability to score enough goals put them outside the playoff race at the halfway point of this shortened season.
Thanks to some superb goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist and a few trade deadlines moves that helped them rediscover their identity, the Rangers are poised to make a deep playoff run as a low seed.
Let's look at why the 2013 Rangers could end up being this year's version of the 2012 Kings.
Trade Deadline Moves Addressed Weaknesses
When the Kings made a bold move at the trade deadline to acquire star center Jeff Carter from the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team went on a late-season surge to earn a playoff spot.
L.A. was ranked 30th in goals scored at the time of Carter's arrival, and he provided the team with another top-six forward who could score goals and improve the power play. He tallied 13 points in 20 playoff games for Darryl Sutter's team, including the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Carter's size and strength also made him an ideal fit in the team's physical style of hockey.
Los Angeles went 12-4-3 after the deadline, which allowed it to develop some much-needed confidence before Game 1 of the first round.
The Rangers have gone through a similar situation in 2013. General manager Glen Sather traded 40-goal scorer Marian Gaborik to the Blue Jackets for defenseman John Moore and forwards Derick Brassard and Derek Dorsett. One day earlier, Sather acquired veteran winger Ryane Clowe from the San Jose Sharks in a deal involving draft picks.
These trades have given the Rangers additional scoring depth, extra toughness/grit and more defensive skill at forward.
Since the completion of those deals, New York has gone 7-3-1 and needs just one more victory to earn a postseason berth. When you look at the production that the Rangers have gotten from their new players, it's easy to understand why this team is finally winning games on a consistent basis.
Clowe had zero goals and 11 assists with a minus-11 rating in 28 games for the San Jose Sharks before joining the Rangers. He has found his game again in New York, and his leadership has also positively affected this team. Brassard has given the Blueshirts another strong faceoff man and much-needed offensive skill on the third line.
Both of these teams identified weaknesses and addressed them at the trade deadline by making an impactful move(s). This is why Dean Lombardi and Sather are two of the better GMs in the league.
Goaltending Is Most Important
Much like the Kings last season, no one will want to play the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs.
What is the reason for this? They have an elite goaltender capable of dominating a playoff series by shutting down a top offensive team.
When the playoffs begin and the focus on defense and physical play is increased, teams need a goaltender to play well on a consistent basis to win the Stanley Cup. Kings goaltender Jonathan Quick won the Conn Smythe Award as playoff MVP last season with a 16-4 record, a 1.41 GAA and a .946 save percentage (fourth-best in postseason history).
As the reigning Vezina Trophy winner and someone many consider as the world's best netminder, Lundqvist is certainly capable of having the same success in this season's playoffs that Quick enjoyed a year ago.
In 12 starts this month, Lundqvist has been fantastic, with an 8-3-1 record, a .935 save percentage and a 1.83 GAA. He's playing his best hockey of the season right now and will be full of confidence going into the playoffs.
New York has more scoring depth than it had in last year's playoff run, so if Lundqvist repeats his playoff performance from 2011-12 (1.82 GAA, 931 SV%), the Blueshirts will advance past the first round for the second-consecutive season.
Motivation for Championship Success Following Multiple Playoff Failures
Expectations were high for the Kings going into the 2012 NHL playoffs, despite the fact that they barely qualified for the 16-team tournament. Los Angeles had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in the two seasons prior its championship run, which gave this team a lot to prove heading into its first-round series with Vancouver.
The Kings were highly motivated to prove their doubters wrong, and it showed in their play on the ice. Los Angeles dominated the top-seeded Canucks 4-1, swept the No. 2 seed St. Louis Blues and then defeated the No. 3 seed Phoenix Coyotes in five games to win the Western Conference.
Once the Kings proved they were capable of winning a playoff series, their confidence skyrocketed, and they became an unstoppable force, including a playoff record 10 straight road wins.
Will NYR reach the Stanley Cup Final?
The Rangers also have a lot to prove, especially since they were expected to win the Atlantic Division, the Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup in this shortened season after coming within two victories of the Cup Final a year ago.
The Blueshirts have advanced past the first round just one time in the four seasons that head coach John Tortorella has been behind the bench, so there is also pressure on him to find a way for his team to reach the next level.
New York is a determined group after having its dreams of winning a championship ended by the rival New Jersey Devils in the East Finals last year. The players haven't forgotten this disappointment, and you can bet that it will fuel them to make a deep playoff run in 2013.
This team has all the motivation it needs to dominate the playoffs in an underdog role.