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Sports

Lots of hockey. Lots of golf. Other sports too. 

The Stanley Cup Final, a.k.a. Kings Psychotherapy

Minivan Dad

The Los Angeles Kings are in the Stanley Cup Finals against the New York Rangers, and I need therapy desperately before Game 1 on Wednesday night. For 3 years now, I've been despising the Kings. I hate watching them. Even when they lose, I hate watching the games. I decided it's time to spell it out, get it out of my system, and move on. I have to watch the Finals and enjoy the hockey. I have to let go. It's enough already.

At first, it was about the trades. When the Flyers traded Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, I was ok with those deals. I still am. Sean Couturier, Jake Voracek ("'Cek-Jesus," as I call him at playoff beard time), Wayne Simmonds, and Brayden Schenn were the products of those deals. Carter did nothing in Columbus, and ultimately they traded him to the Kings for defenseman Jack Johnson, who has played very well for the Blue Jackets and helped lead them out of the desert (along with former Flyer Sergei Bobrovsky, Little Sister Goalie's favorite). The Kings, and coach Darryl Sutter, were the perfect combination for those guys, and I am convinced that the success they have had in LA was not going to happen here. There are lots of reasons why, and there are lots of theories. The bottom line is that in LA, Anze Kopitar is the top dog center, and Dustin Brown is the Captain and lead attitude slinger. Drew Doughty is the young stud defensemen, and there is no battle for the soul of the locker room like there was with Chris Pronger in Philadelphia after the Flyers' unexpected 2010 Finals run. Carter and Richards can produce, and can lead, but they aren't required to do it every single night. And let's face it, being a hockey player in Southern California is not the same as doing it in Philly, or any of the hard core American or Canadian cities where every move is scrutinized, on and off the ice. As long as they're not on police blotters, no one in LA really cares what they do when they're not playing hockey. They are thriving in their roles there, more than they would be here. But that first Kings Stanley Cup win, in 2012? All we ever had to listen to was National Media hyping those trades and the fact that Playoff goal-scoring machine Justin Williams used to play for Philly too. That sucked.

If it's not the trades anymore, then why do I hate watching them? It's partly a style thing. The Kings are big, mean, tough, and more than a little nasty. Dustin Brown and his fuzzball beard have a couple of really questionable knee-on-knee hits to his credit (Phoenix's Shane Doan during the 2012 Cup run, and brilliant young Sharks rookie Tomas Hertl earlier this year), and a really dirty elbow to the head of Minnesota's Jason Pominville at the end of last year's regular season. The Kings were heavily aided in their first round comeback from a 3-0 game deficit to the San Jose Sharks by Jarrett Stoll's late headshot that kept Marc-Edouard Vlasic, San Jose's top defenseman, out of the last 3 games of the series. Goalie Jonathan Quick (and the rest of the Kings) know every gamesmanship trick in the book, including some regular nasty stickwork. In my view, he abuses the rules that protect him from other players doing exactly the same to him.

Really, it's an institutional style that I don't enjoy watching, even from my own team. Push the edge of the envelope. Injuries to opponents are an acceptable risk. The referees can't give an opponent a power play every time the Kings do something, because they have to call at least a few on their opponents, and then the entire game would be power plays and penalty kills, which the referees certainly don't want. (This isn't unique to the Kings, by the way. The Boston Bruins do the same thing, and it's also a time-honored basketball tradition.) So the obvious trip or hold gets called, but a lot of other borderline and slightly over the edge stuff doesn't. The Kings standard for penalty calls then becomes slightly different than their opponents, and that allows them a very small edge in the freedom and aggression with which they can play, even if the special-teams time on the scoresheet is equal or even skewed against them. Opponents will get their chances, but often the Kings end up dictating the style and tempo of the game. In the regular season the effect is less pronounced because things only happen a game at a time. Over a seven-game playoff series against a high-level opponent, that slight edge is often enough to make the one-game difference they need to win.

As an example, a series-changing goal by Williams against San Jose was allowed by a referee because he deemed the puck loose, but completely ignored the fact that Williams caused the puck to go into the net by taking his stick and driving it into the front of Sharks goalie Alex Stalock, between his leg pads. Without any possible view of the puck under Stalock's left skate, he pitchforked Stalock backwards and indirectly dislodged the maybe loose puck. It's an illegal play. The goal never should have been allowed. A deliberate goalie interference penalty and subsequent San Jose power play could easily have been awarded rather than allowing the crucial Kings goal to stand. Had an opponent tried to do it to Quick, he would have been obliterated by Doughty. But the Kings were constantly on Stalock and the Sharks' original starting goalie Antti Niemi after going down 3-0 in the series, hacking and whacking at them, and at any Shark who dared oppose them in front of either net. Eventually it became the standard of play, so the one step further from Williams that caused that crucial goal was just... accepted. At least by the Kings and the officials on the ice. 

Another example. On Sunday night, the Blackhawks took an early lead in game 7 of the Western Finals. They are no shrinking violets, and were playing with a good deal of swagger themselves. Down 2-0 in the middle of the first period, looking to stir things up, Jarrett Stoll deliberately pulled off Chicago goalie Corey Crawford's mask in a scrum in the crease. Again, had someone done that to Quick, the LA goalie and two defensemen would have attacked him, and there would likely have been offsetting penalties. It was completely unpunished, despite putting Crawford at risk for injury from an errant skate blade. Not even a minute later, Brent Seabrook was penalized for Chicago, giving the Kings a power play. They didn't score right away on that power play, but they did soon after at even strength. Yes, the Blackhawks had their chance to win, and they had plenty of power plays to boot, but there was something about the sequence of events beginning with the unpenalized mask removal by Stoll that altered the momentum of the game very slightly, but effectively. From that point forward, the Kings outscored the Blackhawks 4-2 in regulation, ultimately winning 5-4 in overtime. 

OK. This isn't helping. My childhood team was the Rangers. Henrik Lundqvist is, well, Henrik Lundqvist. I encourage Little Sister Goalie to carry herself more like Lundqvist, instead of getting involved in the shenanigans that Quick does. (Henrik gets a free pass for this because, well, who wouldn't?) I will want the Rangers to win. Unless it's the Flyers and the Penguins, it's too unhealthy to want one team to win, and the other to lose. The passive observer stakes are too high. I need to get to the point where watching the Kings doesn't infuriate me, so I can just enjoy watching some hockey. Back to my therapy. 

First. Let's start with the style I just ranted about. Objectively. Opposing players don't appear to have any problem with the way the Kings play. Every hockey team certainly has its share of dirty and questionable plays to its credit (the Rangers' Chris Kreider taking out Montreal's Carey Price in the Eastern Conference Finals, or Brent Seabrook's "Wakey, wakey, Backes" hit in Round 1 against the St Louis Blues for example). There seems to be genuine respect for Quick, even though everyone gets a stick in the leg on the way by the crease and he uses his blocker as a bludgeon. This last handshake line with the Blackhawks seemed quite genuine and respectfully chatty, with more than a few obviously heartfelt half-man-hugs. So, if the Kings' opponents don't have a problem with the Kings style, then I guess I shouldn't either. It will definitely save me a lot of time on Twitter.

Next. I need to explore why it is that they keep winning, and why it drives me crazy, even when I have no vested interest in the team they're playing. Passenger Seat Mom doesn't get why I care. Maybe it might be that it just feels... inevitable. I don't like that. If I wanted scripted reality sports TV, I'd just watch more NBA basketball! I just know the Kings are going to win, no matter what the score of individual games is, or the overall series standing. Barring major injuries, if they lose a series, I'm surprised. So is everyone else. They've won three 7-game playoff series in a row this year. That's never been done before. San Jose, Anaheim, Chicago. Two really good teams, and the defending champions. In each of the first two series, the Kings lost 3 games in a row. It's ridiculous to think a team can win a 7-game series despite a 3-game losing streak, but the Kings did it this year. Twice! The Blackhawks avoided game 6 elimination in Los Angeles, had a 2-goal lead early in game 7, and were ahead in the 3rd period as well. Teams can't put them away. They're the un-dead. Maybe the Rangers just need to switch to wooden sticks, blessed by priests, and freeze holy water into the ice surface at Madison Square Garden. 

I tweeted yesterday that a main reason that they win is clear from Coach Darryl Sutter's press conferences, which are hilarious but also illuminating. This coach, and these guys, are able go out and just... play hockey, no matter what the circumstances are. It's a cliche, but that's what they do. They don't play scared, they don't play nervous, they don't play desperate. Even though they play with swagger, I wouldn't call them arrogant, and they are never complacent. That's not to say that they aren't highly competitive professional athletes who want desperately to win. They clearly do. Or that they're just "having fun," because that's not it either, nor is it that they really do embody the old hockey cliche that they "work hard." It's more than all of that.

The Kings seem to be able to play as if they just don't give a damn, as if nothing is at stake, and it means that they are never affected by their own nerves, or by an opponent's momentum. They just keep on playing, whether they're down 2-0 or up 4-1. They attack, they counterattack. They hit hard and high, they push the envelope of the referees' tolerance, they shoot and drive the net and play hard defense. 

Just as the coach embodies this team, so does The Goalie. Jonathan Quick is hyperaggressive in his positioning, he is nasty against opposing players anywhere near the crease, and he is a master of every trick there is to control the tempo of the game. His defense knows how to play with him. They block shots, they crush opponents in the slot, they knock players down before they can get at the rebounds Quick leaves. With any other team, his extreme style might be exposed, and he occasionally has been during these playoffs. San Jose lit him up in the first 2 games. Finland put 5 past him this year in the Olympic Bronze medal game.

The secret to Quick is that he is always intimidating, no matter how many goals he gives up. Like everyone else around him, he just seems not to care. In the regular season, and on save percentage charts, he isn't nearly as impressive as he is in the playoffs, but he isn't about the regular season or save percentages. The essence of Jonathan Quick is that if you have one shot from the slot to defeat the Kings, he is going to be attacking, taking away your time and space. You may beat him and score and celebrate, but you are going to have to earn it. In the biggest moment of your life, he will make you uncomfortable, but he makes sure you, and everyone else for that matter, knows that he could care less what happens up until it does. It isn't a battle of wits. He is coming at you, fast and hard, and you know you have to deal with it. It's a huge advantage in the biggest moments on the biggest stage.  

The recipe to beat Quick is not to set up pretty chances. It is to carry the puck to the middle of the ice, get traffic in front of the net, fire at will and be ready for rebounds, bounces off the boards, or sharp-angled cross ice passes. Good luck with that against this Kings D. You might get scoring chances; you will be crushed.

Drew Doughty is probably the best complete defenseman in the NHL today. And he's only 24. He has a rocket for a shot, he gives nothing in the defensive zone, he runs lightning breakouts and carries the puck like a forward when he needs to. His skating and checking are so efficient that even if he is tired, he doesn't play tired. He almost never gets hit hard. He kills penalties and quarterbacks power plays. Jake Muzzin, Willie Mitchell, Slava Voynov, Alec Martinez, and Matt Greene comprise the rest of the defensive corps. Although Doughty usually plays almost half the game, this is a deep and smart blue line. They all can shoot, they all play solid defense in their own zone, they're all smart in the neutral zone and challenge at the offensive blue line.

Down the middle they are loaded, with Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Jarrett Stoll, and Mike Richards. All of their centers play responsible defense, can carry the puck, and can score and pass. Kopitar is in the top 3 players in the league. He's long, he's an effortless skater, can defend anyone, and has great hands and vision. He has Brown on one wing, a tough, edgy, nasty player with a knack for disruption. They traded for Marian Gaborik at the trade deadline to fill the other top line wing, and he leads the playoffs in goals. This moved Carter to second line center, where he has been just perfect. He has awesome hands, he's a chippy and now proud defender, and always seems to be on a breakaway or leading a 2-on-1. He plays with two young guys, Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson (That 70s Line!), who add speed and seem to have inspired him to up his game even more. Jarrett Stoll is an instigator but he never loses a faceoff, and he takes a lot of them. He is protected by big Dwight King on one wing, and on his other wing is Justin Williams, who just can't help but score big goals in big games, which is why he's never lost a game 7. Never. The fourth line is a nightmare, with a feisty Richards and nasties Kyle Clifford and Trevor Lewis. Richards gets time on special teams too, which was always his greatest strength with the Flyers and hasn't changed as his role has diminished.

I think I'm getting somewhere. This is a talented, deep team. They play a smart, tough 5-on-5 system, they rarely give up shorthanded goals when they are on power plays, they kill off penalties. They don't score much during the regular season but they sure do during the playoffs. The goalie may be a bit of a weasel, but he's incredibly exciting to watch. They punish players driving to the middle of the ice, they punish players in front of both nets, they punish players along the boards. They make opposing teams fight for every inch in both ends of the ice, and through the neutral zone.

Really, the more I think about it, it's remarkable to watch. They seem to outnumber opposing players on the puck and along the boards, yet still have someone in perfect position to cover any outlet. They outnumber opponents in front of the net in both the offensive and defensive zone, yet still control or challenge the action along the blue line and deep below the goal line. It's like they constantly have six or seven skaters instead of five.  

Getting there... The Kings play physical, nasty hockey, but their opponents don't seem to mind, so why should I? They are fundamentally sound, with extremely talented and unselfish players, and an athletic and incredibly exciting goalie. Their coach gets the best out of them by getting them to play like they couldn't give a rat's butt what happens next, which means they never back down, never give up, and never spit the bit. In order to beat a team like that, an opponent has to play their best hockey.

Wait for it... So if I'm sitting on my couch, watching, that means I'm watching two teams battling for the Greatest Trophy in Sports, and because one of them is the Kings, the level of hockey is going to be supremely awesome. Should the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist defeat this team, it will be a Monumental Achievement, way better than scraping by some 7th seed Canucks team like they did in 1994.

The breakthrough! I don't need to love the Kings, but I have to accept that, because they are really, really good at hockey, the Rangers are also going to have to be really, really good at hockey to beat them. Either way, the hockey should be really, really good. If the Rangers win, and I hope they do, they will have fully earned their Championship.

There. I've made my peace with Los Angeles. I'm going to enjoy watching the Stanley Cup Final, no matter what.

Even if the Kings win.

Which they probably will.

Crap.