Los Angeles Kings save their best form for the NHL play-offs
The Los Angeles Kings entered the 2011/12 NHL season as a team on the rise, a club full of hope and lofty expectations. And with good reason. They boasted an enviable cast of up-and-coming stars, and they had qualified for the play-offs the previous two years.
They might not have been considered an elite Stanley Cup contender, but they were on the cusp - according to the experts, anyhow - and it would not have come as a surprise if this turned into a breakout year for Los Angeles.
Then the regular season started, and the pundits quickly began backing off their pre-season predictions of a majestic ascension.
The Kings were defensively sound, but their star-dotted roster simply could not score.
Despite superior offensive talents such as Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown and Drew Doughty - and a capable supporting cast - the Kings averaged just 2.3 goals per game, the second-lowest output in the NHL.
Their weak offensive play cost coach Terry Murray his job in December, with Darryl Sutter taking over behind the bench, and it continued to be the team's Achilles heel.
It barely upticked after the acquisition of another sniper, Jeff Carter, from the Columbus Blue Jackets at the trade deadline. So instead of cruising into the play-offs as a high-flying favourite, the Kings scraped in during the final week of the season as a lowly No 8 seed in the West.
Make no mistake, they qualified for the postseason due to their defensive prowess and the stellar netminding of goalie Jonathan Quick (for which he received a Vezina Trophy nomination last week.)
Of course, in the post-lockout NHL, a No 8 seed is not what it used to be. The buzzword around the league these days is parity, and nobody's suggesting the Kings would be overlooked by their first-round opponent, the Vancouver Canucks.
But give the Canucks credit, too; they had won back-to-back Presidents' Trophies as the NHL's best regular-season team, and advanced to Game 7 of the Cup final last spring.
That did not mean a lick to the Kings, however, as Los Angeles' scorers finally shook off their October-to-April slumber. They dispatched the Canucks in a fast five games and earned a few days of rest while other the series stretched out.
Round 2 brought another imposing opponent, the No 2-seeded St Louis Blues who had enjoyed the type of breakout season that many had envisioned for the Kings.
It appeared to be an evenly matched series, featuring two teams with strong goaltending, physicality and top-to-bottom depth. But while the Kings' shooters remained hot, the Blues' netminding went cold and Los Angeles was on the cusp of the West final - and maybe more.
It is what was expected of the Kings heading into the season, but their winding road to this point was hardly an indication of their post-season promise. Things change quickly in the play-offs, and we could be writing their eulogy in a week or two.
But the Kings look like a team that is hitting their stride at just the right juncture - and as everyone thought at the start of the season, they've got the talent to go all the way.
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Published: May 6, 2012 04:00 AM