The Los Angeles Kings may have advanced to their first Stanley Cup Final since 1993 -- and they may have been a playoff team for the third straight season -- but their season was far from smooth-sailing
In fact, heading into the 2011-12 season, the Kings were considered to be one of the Western Conference's strongest teams. They boasted elite top-line talent, depth on the blueline and one of the best goalies in the NHL. But the Kings slogged through the early part of the season, going 13-12-4 under Terry Murray. They certainly weren't living up to expectations and their bench boss of the last three-plus years was sent packing after the team scored two or fewer goals in 14 consecutive games.
Darryl Sutter was then hired, and although the Kings improved under him -- 25-13-11 -- goal scoring was still a big issue and that's the reason they had to squeak into the playoffs as an eight-seed. Los Angeles finished the year 29th in goals per game, putting up 2.29. The reason it was able to stay in the thick of things during the season was the Vezina trophy-worthy play of goalie Jonathan Quick. He finished second in the league with a 1.95 goals-against average and .929 save percentage. Even more notable is that he rarely had any breathing room yet he single-handedly saved the Kings' season.
Their season came together in March and April, as they won 11 games and earned points in 14 of 18. The trade deadline was the turning point for this team. Captain Dustin Brown was rumored to be a name included in trade chatter, and that seemed to ignite him as he tallied 26 points over the final 32 games, aiding a lackadaisical offense that was really only carried by Anze Kopitar. That the 24-year-old center scored 25 goals and had 76 points is quite amazing considering his team's scoring woes. And one cannot forget the trade the team made Feb. 23, sending Jack Johnson to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Jeff Carter, reuniting him with ex-Flyers teammate Mike Richards. Carter had six goals and nine points in his 16 games with Los Angeles, but his addition certainly buoyed the offense.
Even though the Kings finished strong, they seemed to have an uphill battle to climb to make any noise in the playoffs. Their first test was a series against the No.1-seeded Vancouver Canucks, also the Presidents' Trophy winners. All they did was upset them in five games, winning the first three by outscoring them 9-4 and going undefeated on the road. They then faced off against the St. Louis Blues, who with 109 points had the second-most in the league. Going into the playoffs, the Blues had a dynamic goaltending duo and were rock solid on defense. But the Kings dispatched them in a four-game sweep to take on the upstart Phoenix Coyotes in the Western Conference semifinals. Mike Smith was as hot a goal as their was in the NHL, but that didn't matter to the Kings, who took care of Phoenix in five games.
As the Stanley Cup Final begins Wednesday night, perhaps the most impressive feat for the Kings is that they've gone undefeated in their eight road playoff games. Brown has been a star, scoring seven times and amassing 16 points, while Kopitar has six and 15. But throughout the season Quick was the backbone, and he's been in the playoffs, going 12-2 with a 1.54 goals-against average, .946 save percentage and two shutouts.
The Kings may be a No. 8 seed, but they're playing like the best team in hockey.