Of the myriad of factors that determine the Stanley Cup champion, luck is perhaps the most underestimated—mainly because it's so hard to quantify.
There is no determining when the injury bug will hit, or when an unheralded player will suddenly have the game of his life. It's those little things, the minor breaks in luck, that so often determine how the NHL playoffs play out—especially as parity continues to reign supreme.
No team knows that better than the Los Angeles Kings.
While it's become a near-guarantee that every year a goalie will get blazing hot and spearhead his team's playoff run, it's almost impossible to predict who that will be. Last year, that man was Jonathan Quick. Already an ascending talent, Quick stood on his head in the postseason. He went 16-4 in net and allowed a paltry 1.41 goals per game, saving almost 95 percent of opposing shots in the process.
It was Quick's play that was the catalyst for the Kings' run. They became the first No. 8 seed to ever win the Stanley Cup, tying the NHL record with 10 road wins in the process. Quick was so good that not even home-ice advantage could stop him.
This year, the Kings have fallen to the opposite side of the luck spectrum. While Quick has still been phenomenal, he's been unable to save Los Angeles from the most dire truth of the NHL playoffs—injury luck.
Coach Darryl Sutter's line rotations have been in a constant state of flux in these playoffs, as injuries have piled up from all across the ice. The team has been without Jarret Stoll and seen plenty of other bruises and scrapes create a mountain of injuries that makes the defending Cup champions look more like a M.A.S.H. unit than a repeat contender.
And yet the team has persevered, thanks to Quick and a toughness that has become synonymous with this bunch.
However, with the Kings preparing for the fourth game of their Western Conference Finals matchup, there's one injury that continues to weigh on this team.
Second-line center Mike Richards will reportedly miss Game 4 on Thursday with concussion-like symptoms, his third consecutive missed game. Richards was injured in Game 1 after being hit by Chicago's Dave Bolland, but Sutter says he was unable to make the morning skate, per ESPN's Pierre LeBrun.
"He didn't skate today, so he won't play tonight," Sutter said.
While there was no promise of Richards playing on Thursday, hope was fanned for Kings fans 24 hours prior. The 28-year-old center worked out with the team in practice, participating in a light skate practice without limitation. There was no contact in that drill, but it was seen as a major positive for his prognosis.
Without Richards, the already banged-up Kings will have their backs firmly placed against the wall against Chicago. The Blackhawks already hold a 2-1 series lead heading into Game 4, and Richards' presence would have been a big boon to Los Angeles' chances.
Richards was an integral cog of Los Angeles' playoff run last season, a run that continued to cement his reputation as one of the best two-way forwards in hockey. He scored 15 points in the Kings' run, including 11 assists—an indicator of his deft passing skills.
Though his play left something to be desired during the regular season, Richards was well on his way to a repeat performance before the concussion. He had 10 points through the first 14 games of Los Angeles' repeat run, still third-most on the team, and had been in fine form defensively as well.
There is no word on when (or if) Richards will return in this series. His value, though, is immeasurable. Teammate Jeff Carter spoke with ESPN's Arash Markazi following Wednesday's skate and noted how happy the Kings would be to see him back on the ice.
"It's obviously great to see him out there," Carter said. "I don't know anything more than that, other than he skated today. If we could get him back at some point in this series, whenever it is, it's a huge lift to this team."
Richards has to pass through NHL concussion protocol to make that happen. Until then, the Blackhawks will see Tyler Toffoli, the rookie who has replaced Richards in the rotation. Toffoli has done just fine so far, even recording a goal in Game 2.
But Chicago would take the Richards-for-Toffoli trade every day, twice on Sunday and create an eighth day in the calendar so that they could take it again.
And it's not like the Blackhawks exactly need any more advantages.
They spent their entire regular season pulverizing the NHL on both ends of the ice, getting their own excellence in net from Corey Crawford. Chicago started the season with an NHL record 24 straight games without suffering a defeat in regulation. The team (understandably) cooled a bit following that streak—if we can use the term "cooled" to denote still finishing with 77 points, best in hockey.
Can the Kings defeat the Blackhawks without Mike Richards?
Richards' injury, along with the remainder of Los Angeles' ailments, puts the Blackhawks in a great position. They're not only more talented on paper, but healthier as well—a double-edged sword for those in the City of Angels hoping for a repeat.
Chicago blew its first chance at striking the crushing blow, falling 3-1 in Tuesday night's Game 3 action. The Blackhawks get one more chance to deflate the Staples Center crowd on Thursday and send the defending champs to the precipice of extinction.
With Richards out again, the odds look better than ever.
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