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Why are the Los Angeles Kings in the 2012 Stanley Cup Final?
Because the two drunk, locker room cancers helped set up a lazy fat-ass for the game-winning goal.
At least that's how it would have been framed about eight months ago, when the narratives about Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Penner had defined them as players. The first two were banished from the Philadelphia Flyers, ostensibly for cap relief in the pursuit of a No. 1 goaltender (or, failing that, Ilya Bryzgalov) but mostly for a culture change in the dressing room.
Penner, meanwhile, was (a) a waste of salary compared to production and (b) out of shape and (c) lazy to the point where his general manager suggested he might be better off playing for the El Cid Lounge in a men's softball league.
In overtime of Game 5 in the Western Conference Final on Tuesday night, Richards won the faceoff near the defensive zone. Slava Voynov moved it up the boards, and Penner kept the puck alive in the attacking zone on the forecheck, sending a nifty backhand pass to a streaking Carter. He fired the puck off of Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith with Richards causing chaos on front of the net, helping to clear the slot for Penner to fire home the rebound over Smith's glove. With that, the Kings were headed to the Cup Final.
This trio was maligned and decried for the better part of 2011-12. Yet it was this Dry Island of Misfit Toys that has the Kings four wins away from the first Stanley Cup.
Carter and Richards were traded last June on the same day, dramatically remaking a Flyers team that was a year removed from the Stanley Cup Final.
Carter was exiled to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Jakub Voracek, a third and the first that became Sean Couturier. His initial disdain for the trade was influenced by the Flyers going against their word that his 11-year contract would ensure he'd remain in Philadelphia. But his sullen attitude reportedly carried over into the season with the Jackets, exacerbated by the team's lack of success.
On Feb. 23, he was traded for defenseman Jack Johnson and a first-round choice, reuniting him with Mike Richards on the Kings.
The move was cynically met. Here were two players who were removed from the Flyers' dressing room, now reunited on the Kings. The "Dry Island" allegations that flew after their trades — that the duo refused to make a sobriety pledge, encouraged by team management — followed them. Wrote Flyers beat writer Wayne Fish: "How will that work, with the possibility of afterhours activity in Los Angeles more tempting than Philadelphia?"
Richards, meanwhile, was catching heat for a lack of offensive production (44 points in 74 games, his lowest since 2006-07) and still had questions about his leadership being asked after Chris Pronger usurped him in Philadelphia. What difference was he making on a Kings team that couldn't score and was clawing for a playoff seed?
Maybe the concerns about Carter, Richards and their behavior will manifest in later years, considering both are signed through 2020 (Carter's deal is until 2022). But GM Dean Lombardi saw Carter as an essential fix for his team's offense in a 16-game sprint to the playoffs — one in which Carter had six goals.
In the playoffs, Carter now has 9 points in 14 games, acting as an offensive catalyst. Richards is winning faceoffs and has scored 11 points in 14 games, exhibiting the gamesmanship and direction that make him a pain in the backside to play against.
Carter and Richards are leaders on this Kings team, something Geoffrey Detweiler thinks the media narrative got wrong during their time in Philly:
None of that is to suggest the Flyers should have kept going with Carter and Richards - though I think they should have. No, that is just there to show that the Flyers were in good hands with Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. The team had success with them at the helm, and if Chris Pronger were healthy against Boston, things may have been different. Instead, the Flyers will hope they are able to fill the leadership void created by the Richards and Carter trades. Because there is absolutely a void, and that's not even discussing their on-ice impact.
Now, Carter and Richards are playing for the Stanley Cup, while the Flyers are enjoying their time on vacation. Perhaps on an island somewhere.
Penner had, perhaps, the cruelest journey to that winning moment in Game 5.
He was a player defined by his salary: $4.25 million, a contract handed to him as a restricted free agent by the Edmonton Oilers and one that ends when this season does. The Kings surrendered Colten Teubert, a first-round pick and future considerations for him at the 2011 trade deadline.
He responded with two goals in 19 games.
In the offseason, a photo circulated on the web showing Penner in shoulder pads and rocking a gut. Lombardi made his softball crack about Penner's desire and conditioning. But pundits like Pierre McGuire of NBC still said he was a key to the Kings:
"I mean, they paid a huge bounty to get him from the Edmonton Oilers. And he won Stanley Cup in '07 in Anaheim, where he was a huge factor for that team. The one guy who's got to alleviate a lot of the pressure on Dustin Brown is Dustin Penner. And if he doesn't do it then he's got to look at himself in the mirror because he's been taking a lot of money for a long time and not producing."
Penner responded to that pressure with 7 goals in 65 games during the regular season.
He was maligned as a bust, ridiculed as a waste of money.
Then the pancakes happened.
Penner became the NHL player who was "injured" eating a stack of "delicious pancakes" his wife made. That was the point at which the balloon of criticism popped; when Penner's plight had become so surreal that the laughter had an undercurrent of sympathy. That he seized the day (carpe flapjack!) and turned the pancake affair into a moment of self depreciation and eventual charity transformed Penner into some kind of folk hero.
Then Darryl Sutter happened.
When Sutter was hired to replace Terry Murray on Dec. 11, Penner's ice time ranged between 14-17 minutes with little to show for it. Sutter reduced Penner's ice time and, in some cases, took it away from him altogether as a healthy scratch. "Work your ass off, then you get a chance to play again," Sutter said to ESPN LA. "If you don't, you don't."
Then the divorce went public.
Penner's marriage to wife Jessica Welch became TMZ fodder in late February. Whether that was cathartic or embarrassing for Penner, it was no longer a private matter. Again, fans earned some further understanding about what may have contributed to Penner's struggles.
Maybe it was Sutter's motivation, Penner's mental clarity or simply just his typical rising to the occasion in the playoffs — as he did with the Anaheim Ducks in 2007 — Penner has three goals and seven assists in 14 games for the Kings, despite just 12:23 in TOI.
As Jeffrey Chapman put it on Oil On Whyte: "Some Fat, Lazy Guy With No Heart And Isn't Clutch Just Put The Kings In The Cup Finals."
These three players were among the most criticized in hockey over the last several months. Last night, they helped send the Kings to the Cup Final for the first time since 1993. The Stanley Cup Playoffs are nothing if not an instrument for redemption. Penner, Carter and Richards are symbolic of that.