"You don't have to win 82 games. You've got to make the playoffs, and then you've got to be ready to go." – Dustin Brown on Oct. 15, 2011, two days after the Los Angeles Kings' last road game against the New Jersey Devils, a 2-1 shootout loss.
Dustin Brown didn't know how right he was. The Los Angeles Kings are back on the road to play the New Jersey Devils, only this time it's in the Stanley Cup Final. They're an eighth seed facing a sixth seed. One of them will become the lowest seed ever to hoist the hardest trophy to win in sports.
It's like those old NHL commercials: Everything is going backwards. We're left with weighty what-if questions. And in the end, when this tournament fades to black, "History will be made."
What if there was no salary cap? What if there was no parity? What if these teams didn't risk adding superstars with spotty reputations and albatross contracts? What if they didn't make multiple coaching changes within a matter of months? What if they didn't shrug off sluggish starts, finish strong in the regular season and get hot in the playoffs?
What if this is just the beginning?
Since the NHL started seeding its conferences one through eight in 1993-94, only one bottom-four seed has ever won the Cup: the 1995 Devils, and they were a fifth seed playing in a shortened season because of a lockout. No sixth seed has ever won the Cup. No seventh seed has ever won the Cup. No eighth seed has ever won the Cup.
Only one sixth seed and one eighth seed have ever even played for the Cup – the Calgary Flames were sixth in 2004, the Edmonton Oilers eighth in '06 – and now we have a No. 6 versus a No. 8 in the same series. (Four seventh seeds have made the final, however.)
Since the NHL went to four best-of-7 series in 1987, at least one Cup finalist always had finished in the top eight overall in the regular-season standings. This year, the Devils finished ninth. The Kings finished 13th.
This isn't like two wild-card teams making the Super Bowl, because in the NFL, the Kings wouldn't even have gotten a wild card. But the NHL has been becoming more and more like the NFL since introducing a salary cap in 2005-06.
The talent has been distributed more evenly. The action has become more unpredictable. There are still leaders and laggards, but there are more teams capable of going all the way if the circumstances are right – matchups, momentum, health, luck.
And if the circumstances are really right, even an eighth seed can look almost unbeatable. The Kings won only 40 regular-season games, a little less than half their schedule. They have gone 12-2 in the playoffs, plowing through the first, second and third seeds in the West – arguably the greatest run ever to this point. Since the NHL went to four best-of-7 rounds in 1987, no team has taken fewer than 14 games to make the final, and until these Kings did it, no team has knocked off the top seeds – one, two, three.
"You look at L.A., they sneak in on the eighth seed, and all of a sudden, it's almost as if they're toying with teams now," said Devils captain Zach Parise. "You want to get in, and then you want to try to get up as high as you can [in the standings]. But with how equal everything is, that's the most important thing, just to get in."
Now, that doesn't mean anyone can win if they just get in. And it remains to be seen whether this is a one-year thing – especially with labor negotiations looming, possibly leading to realignment of the league and a new playoff format.
Parity means there are more true Cup contenders overall, and parity makes it more likely that a true Cup contender can underachieve during the regular season and dress up like a Cinderella in the spring. Parity does not make it more likely that an unworthy team can slip into the playoffs and overachieve its way to a championship.
Entering these playoffs, the data still showed that the NHL was a world of favorites and underdogs. In the salary-cap era, sixth seeds had won 50 percent of their first-round series, but they faced third seeds – which go to the weakest division winners, the most likely teams to be seeded higher than they deserve. Seventh seeds had won 16 percent of their first-round series, eighth seeds 25 percent.
So it was still rare for a low seed to escape the first round, let alone win two or three rounds. And look at the exceptions to the rule: The eighth-seeded Oilers came within a win of the Cup in 2006, but that was in the first season after the 2004-05 lockout, a wild one with new rules. The seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers and eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens went to the Eastern Conference final in 2010, and the Flyers came within two wins of the Cup. But the Flyers were an underachieving team sparked by a coaching change, and the Habs had a hot goalie, Jaroslav Halak.
Now look at the Devils and the Kings: The truth is, both were better than they looked in the standings. At least they should have been.
The Devils missed the playoffs last season. But they missed for the first time since 1996, and they missed because of a disastrous first half, working in $100-million man Ilya Kovalchuk under rookie coach John MacLean. General manager Lou Lamoriello fired MacLean and brought veteran coach Jacques Lemaire out of retirement. A scorching second half wasn't enough, but had they made it, they might have made noise.
"A lot of people – a lot of players – were really bitter and upset about how that ended," Parise said. "The way we were playing was unheard of. We thought that if we could somehow sneak in, that you never know what could happen. I don't think there would have been anyone too eager to play a team that's won 26 out of their last 30."
The Devils started 12-12-1 this season, but they were getting used to a new coach, Pete DeBoer, and a new system. They went 36-16-5 after that. Though they finished sixth in the East and ninth in the league, they racked up 102 points in the brutal Atlantic Division.
They finished eight points ahead of the third-seeded Florida Panthers, and because they needed seven games – not to mention overtime in Game 6 and double OT in Game 7 – to beat them in the first round, they looked worse. But they finished only one point behind the Flyers, whom they whipped in five games in the second round. They finished seven points behind the top-seeded New York Rangers, but they beat them in six in the conference final.
The Kings started 13-12-4 this season and fired coach Terry Murray. But this was a team that was supposed to be on the verge of breaking out, and there was no excuse for ranking second-to-last in the NHL in offense, not with the talent in the top six. That's why Murray was fired. General manager Dean Lombardi knew he needed to boost the scoring, and he never stopped thinking big.
"I still believe in the end defense is critical if you're going to win in the playoffs, so that has firmly been put in place, and we're not changing our game," said Lombardi after firing Murray in December. "But if you're going to win it all, you've got to be able to do both, and that’s the step we want to take."
Lombardi hired Darryl Sutter, and he traded for sniper Jeff Carter – reuniting him with Mike Richards, the other former Flyer he had acquired in the summer, despite the rumors of their partying and their pricey, long-term contracts. The Kings went 25-13-11 under Sutter. They started to score down the stretch, and everything has clicked in the playoffs the way it should have all along. Even the disappointing Dustin Penner has become a clutch player, and hockey is suddenly cooler in L.A. than it has been since the days of Wayne Gretzky.
"We're going to need a bigger bandwagon," Penner said.
The Kings are an eighth seed that has steamrolled through the top teams in the West, and they are 8-0 on the road. The Devils are a sixth seed, and Kovalchuk is talking like this: "We're in the Stanley Cup Final for a reason. They were really good on the road all playoffs long, but I don't think they've faced a team like us yet."
Everything is going backwards. Aren't you looking forward to it?
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