Imagine the Los Angeles Kings polish off the Phoenix Coyotes and get it over with in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals on Sunday. Now imagine it takes a full week longer for the Eastern Conference finals to wrap up as the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils push one another to Game 7.
Of all the possibilities for the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, that combination of events is one of the most realistic. For the Kings, this would mean an improbable 12-1 romp through the conference portion of the dance, followed by roughly 10 or 11 days before the final series commences.
For the opposition, it would mean either three or four days of rest, refocusing and turning the page for either a Rangers team coming off the maximum 21 games or a Devils team with 19 games already on its log.
Advantage Los Angeles? Not necessarily.
The notion that a disproportionately protracted layoff between playoff rounds comes back to drop the other skate on a previously dominant team probably gets more credit than it deserves. With that said, it does have some credibility based on historical evidence, both in hockey and in other sports.
The NBA has at least two pieces of evidence that favors the other side of this debate. In 2001, the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers waited 10 days after sweeping the San Antonio Spurs to start clashing with the Philadelphia 76ers, who were three days removed from a Game 7 triumph over Milwaukee. The Lakers defended their crown in five games.
The same held true for the 1996 Chicago Bulls, who were not rusty in the least when they topped the Seattle Supersonics.
But in five of the last seven times any North American major sports championship had one finalist coming off a seven-game victory and the other a sweep, fresher momentum has prevailed over fresher legs.
Leading up to the 2007 World Series, the Cinderella Colorado Rockies went 7-0 in the NLDS and NLCS, clinching their pennant six days before the opposing Boston Red Sox clinched theirs.
The Rockies ultimately needed to wait nine days between their pennant-clincher against Arizona and the World Series opener, whereas the Sox had a three-day layoff. Boston would sweep Colorado.
The same scenario occurred a year prior, when the Detroit Tigers swept the Oakland Athletics for the American League pennant while the National League champion St. Louis Cardinals prevailed only after the New York Mets pushed them to the limit. In the battle for the major league title, St. Louis was victorious against Detroit, four games to one.
Before that, in 1988, the Athletics swept their way to the AL pennant while the Los Angeles Dodgers went to seven games in the NLCS. Again, the eventual world champion was the team that had more work in the preceding round.
In 1998, the NBA’s Utah Jazz swept the Lakers and waited for the Bulls to take down Indiana in Game 7. Chicago won the league title in six games.
The last time a Stanley Cup tournament saw one conference final end in a sweep and another in seven games―and the only time it has ever happened in the four-round playoff era―was in 2003.
The Ducks clinched the Campbell Bowl on May 16 of that year. Seven nights later, the Devils vanquished the Senators in Ottawa.
When the Ducks and Devils converged in East Rutherford for Game 1 of their final series, it had been 11 nights since Anaheim’s previous extramural engagement. New Jersey would win each of the first two games, 3-0, and ultimately claimed the Cup in a seven-game bout that saw the home team win every installment.
If this year’s Kings act like the Ducks of the past and the current edition of the Devils act like its 2003 predecessor, it would not be a stretch to bank on the same basic result.
With the Rangers, there would be more room for doubt, although their pack-it-in approach could sufficiently stifle the L.A. strike force without expending too much energy to get the better of Jonathan Quick.
For their own sake, the Kings most naturally would prefer to abolish the Coyotes at the earliest possible chance. But they must to be mindful that the potential 10- or 11-day interlude between games will be a challenge upgrade from the six- and seven-day breaks that separated the first and second and second and third rounds.
If it does eliminate Phoenix in Game 4 this Sunday, Los Angeles will need to formulate its own preparation kit to stave off fatal frostbite in the final.