As we break into the second half of the season, NHL fans are
preparing for the crescendo of their year – the race for the playoffs and a run
to the Stanley Cup.
For the last four seasons the ping-pong match between the Los Angeles Kings and the Chicago Blackhawks has made for good theater, if not great
hockey. But will one of these teams once again be holding the Cup this June?
While the rest of the league tries to catch up, it looks like it will be deja
vu all over again. The smart money is
on the team that dominates even numbers like a Vegas card counter... the Kings.
Right now, LA is running Darryl Sutter's system to perfection.
The Kings fly under the radar because they lack the scoring, style, and finesse
you see in Chicago, Dallas, or Washington. But make no mistake, this is a team
nobody wants to see in the playoffs.
To understand why the Kings have hit such a groove, you have to
look back to the off-season.
The team had hit its lowest point in the Sutter era. LA failed
to make the 2015 playoffs, their second best defenseman Slava Voynov was
deported after a domestic violence incident, and there were whispers that the
coach had lost the locker room. So what did GM Dean Lombardi do? He doubled
down on his coach.
After the Blackhawks third Cup in five years, every pundit with
a microphone was screaming one word – speed. To match Chicago, you have to get
faster. Lombardi and Sutter extended their collective middle fingers and went
the opposite direction. The trade for Milan Lucic made the Kings slower,
meaner, gritter, and tougher. The perfect foil for Sutter's game. Lucic is on
pace for about 20 goals and 50 points for the season. If you ask Sutter, he's
probably more concerned his winger hits the 100 penalty minute mark. Sutter
loves how Lucic plays at the edge, an ingredient missing from last year's
Meantime, the blue line begins, middles, and ends with Drew
Doughty. He's favored to capture his first Norris Trophy as the game's best
defenseman, an honor that may be long over due. He's never going to put up the
blistering numbers of an Erik Karlsson or a P.K.
Subban, that’s not part of the Kings’ system. He's simply rounded into the best
end-to-end blue-liner in the game, and the league knows it.
While the team is performing well,
it's well documented L.A.'s ace-in-the hole come playoff time is netminder
Jonathan Quick. He's proven over the last half-decade to be the best crunch
time goalie in the game. He's having another stellar campaign, currently
notching 27 wins in 43 games with a 2.24 GAA. The only question for Quick and
for the Kings is how the team manages his minutes down the stretch. Last
season, the 2012 Conn Smythe winner was 2nd in the NHL in total ice
time at a whopping 4,184 minutes played. One of the team’s goals in the second
half of the season will be keeping Quick fresh, so expect to see a lot of
Jhonas Enroth in the weeks to come.
With two cups in the last five
years, the Kings have the experience and the system to win it all again. Wake
me up some time in late May when they drop the puck for Game 1 against Chicago
in the Western Conference finals. It's going to be another titanic struggle.
Winner gets the Cup. Sorry everybody in the East... you're playing for second
Labels: Michael Low