Over so soon?
Wars have been won and lost in less time than the NHL requires to appoint a worthy champion — and it has one in the Los Angeles Kings, the team that made a Western Conference No. 8 seed look like an Indy 500 pole position.
It took 45 years for the 1967 expansion franchise to finally produce a Hollywood ending, but the Kings didn’t leave a lot of doubt, essentially trampling their western competition before vanquishing the New Jersey Devils 6-1 on Monday.
California dreaming? You bet. With the Anaheim Ducks having first brought the Stanley Cup to So-Cal in 2007, and the Kings newly crowned, all that remains is for the San Jose Sharks to live up to their contender status to deliver the California hat trick.
That may take a while.
For now, there is enough to consider with a Los Angeles team that found its coach, Darryl Sutter, on a farm in Alberta and scooped two precious pieces in the form of Philadelphia Flyers castoffs Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
After a season in which dubious hits and the penalties they wrought were debated throughout, it was appropriate that the deciding game would hinge on a dangerous hit, the slam from behind by Steve Bernier on Rob Scuderi. Go ahead, if you want, micro-analyse that check from now until the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is signed.
It won’t change the fact the Kings were the better team.
Glancing back at their complete body of spring cleaning, the Kings no longer seem like the underdogs they were called when they “upset” the top-seeded Vancouver Canucks in five games before sweeping the St. Louis Blues, who earned second place in the west off a spectacular season. The Phoenix Coyotes provided the next appetizer for the Kings before they dined on the Devils. L.A. got on a roll, stayed on it.
“New Jersey gave them a bit of a scare, but they (the Kings) really went through the playoffs without facing much adversity,” St. Louis Blues general manager Doug Armstrong said by telephone Tuesday. “They didn’t have any injuries, and nobody could really push them to a game 6 or 7 until (Monday) night.”
Of course, regular season prominence doesn’t mean what it did before the last CBA brought in a salary cap and earlier free agency, basically levelling the playing field from year to year, if not night to night.
It has been said many times that the Kings “are not really an eighth seed” because injuries and scoring problems sabotaged them early in the season.
This consideration hasn’t stopped the Kings from inspiring lower-seeded playoff teams, including the Ottawa Senators group that finished 8th in the Eastern Conference.
If not for a Game 6 collapse on home ice against the New York Rangers in the opening series, the Senators might also have played on into June. Ultimately, they blew a 3-2 series lead and lost in seven to New York.
The success of Los Angeles, combined with Ottawa’s plucky performance on Broadway, caused assistant general manager Tim Murray to say on the Team 1200 afternoon show recently, “I don’t mind finishing eighth for the next 10 years and take my chances with that,” or words to that effect.
Just how close are the Senators to being Kings-good?
It’s hard to say, because they need some of their bright young players to blossom, just as defenceman Erik Karlsson did this past season, but the Kings are not a bad group to emulate. Big, strong, physical, not afraid to get after the puck.
The Senators have shown a willingness to play for head coach Paul MacLean, just as the Kings went through walls for Sutter.
Certainly GM Bryan Murray believes his team can be a threat, along similar lines.
“My hope is that in the next two years we’ll be considerably better,” Murray said in an interview. “I know it’s going to take some of the younger guys to grow up and really be impact players, but I’m hoping the (development) schedule allows us in the next couple of years to be real serious contenders.”
In other words, while Kings general manager Dean Lombardi used trades to bring in key forwards like Richards, Carter, Justin Williams and Jarret Stoll to complement their precious 2005 draft pick, Anze Kopitar, the Senators are counting on internal growth to have a similar effect.
On defence, Ottawa needs Karlsson — once he signs for Drew Doughty kind of money — to be Doughty the playoff performer. Big Jared Cowen, coming off his rookie season, has the potential to be at least as good as L.A.’s Willie Mitchell. There is plenty of depth in Ottawa to provide a solid corps.
Up front, the Senators are counting on No. 2 centre, Kyle Turris, acquired by trade with Phoenix, to get stronger and at least two of their prospects — Jakob Silfverberg, Mika Zibanejad, Mark Stone and Stefan Noesen — to become big-time players. Nothing is assured, because they have little NHL experience to this point.
Perhaps the toughest question: Which goalie will be Ottawa’s answer to Jonathan Quick? Craig Anderson provided good goaltending against the Rangers, but it may be Robin Lehner or Ben Bishop in goal by the time the Senators are a serious threat.