The last two Western Conference teams to win the Stanley Cup have another crack at hockey’s biggest prize starting today, with the Los Angeles Kings facing the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final.
Chicago has been formidable for most of the abbreviated 2013 NHL campaign and, after pretty much coasting past the Minnesota Wild in the opening round in five games, showed its resiliency in Round 2 by winning three straight games, edging out the Detroit Red Wings in overtime in Game 7.
With the likes of Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford in its lineup, Chicago’s roster is the envy of any NHL general manager.
Then there’s the defending champion Kings.
Last year, Los Angeles raced through the playoffs after making the field as the West’s eighth seed. They disposed of each of their opponents in no more than six games and never trailed in any of their series.
This spring has been a little bit different.
The Kings found themselves down by two games in the opening round against the St. Louis Blues but rebounded to win four straight contests to advance. The second round against the San Jose Sharks, the Kings and their California rivals went back and forth, with the home team winning each time, as the Kings went where they hadn’t last year—a seventh game.
They made it through, thanks to two goals from Justin Williams and 25 saves from last year’s Conn Smythe Trophy winner, Jonathan Quick, in the deciding contest. They also bested San Jose netminder Antti Niemi, who had backstopped Chicago to its 2010 Stanley Cup crown.
Quick is 8-5 so far this spring, with a league-leading 1.50 GAA, .948 save percentage and three shutouts. The Kings have also been getting points by committee, with all but three skaters having put up a point through the first 13 games of this year’s postseason. Six players have five points or more, led by Philadelphia Flyer transplants Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
The NHL hasn’t had a repeat champion since Detroit in 1997 and 1998. Every year since then, the Stanley Cup champion has fallen the next season, usually when facing newfound adversity. Shots that went in the year before somehow stay out. Pucks that were turned away 12 months earlier suddenly find the back of the net. Special teams falter, injuries come into play and officials’ calls don’t go the same way.
The last two Stanley Cup winners—Chicago and Boston—were eliminated in overtime in the seventh game of the opening round the next year, the Hawks after rebounding from a 3-0 deficit against Vancouver.
The Kings have bucked a trend since the Red Wings’ double deal by getting back to the conference final the year after winning the Cup—like Dallas (2000) and Detroit (2008)—and now stand just eight wins away from being the NHL’s first repeat winner in 15 years.
They’ve also proven they can overcome hardship, by ousting both the Blues and Sharks while also getting past Chicago’s former top goalie from three years ago. Plus, with Quick in their own net playing well again, they look to be set.
The Hawks have home-ice advantage this series. The Presidents’ Trophy winner isn’t automatically awarded the Stanley Cup, though—and the Kings have proven they can not only win on the road, but can also play their best hockey at the most important time of the year.
It may take six or seven games, but look for Los Angeles to head back to the Stanley Cup final for the second straight season when all is said and done this round.