Kings: Skyrocketing to Stanley Cup, facing Blackhawks

Kings: Skyrocketing to Stanley Cup, facing Blackhawks
May 31, 2013, 10:45 am
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Nina Falcone

Throughout the beginning of the 2011-12 season, the Kings looked about the way Los Angeles was used to. They were off to a slow start and were even earned the dreaded title of worst offensive team in the league just a month and a half into the season. It was time for a change, and general manager Dean Lombardi decided to do just that mid-season.

Darryl Sutter -- who both played and coached for the Chicago Blackhawks -- was brought in to replace Terry Murray on Dec. 17, 2011. It was the first time Sutter had seen a head coaching job since stepping down in Calgary in 2006. Sutter sat down for his first interview in Los Angeles and mumbled his way through the questions, but a look at his resume proved he could be just the guy the Kings needed. He had coached a total of 11 NHL seasons previously, seeing postseason play in 10 of those years and made it to the Stanley Cup Finals with the Flames in 2004.

In front of the cameras, he appeared a man of few words. But on the ice, he transformed a roster that went from showing little offensive production to becoming the Stanley Cup champions just a few months later.

Sutter's first game behind the Kings' bench was on Dec. 22 as his new team earned a shootout victory against its nearby rival, the Anaheim Ducks. The Kings went on to earn a 25-13-11 record throughout the remainder of the regular season, barely squeaking their way into the playoffs as the Western Conference's eighth seed.

By that point in the game, the Kings' production had improved in just about every aspect of their game. But in the 2012 postseason, it was goaltender Jonathan Quick that stole the show.

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The Kings dropped only four games their entire playoff run last year. Quick recorded a .946 save percentage and 1.41 goals-against average, rightfully earning him the Conn Smythe Trophy (most valuable player in the postseason).

But after the Stanley Cup celebration was all said and done, Quick -- who had been signed to a 10-year extension in Los Angeles -- had to undergo back surgery. He wound up being one player who actually benefited from the lockout, having extra time to recover and reduce the risk of further injury.

When the Kings returned to the ice, they faced a "Stanley Cup hangover," dropping seven of their first 10 matchups in 2013. But as they had done the season prior, they were back to their winning ways and entered the postseason as the fifth seed.

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The Kings aren't on the same rampage they were last year when they swept the St. Louis Blues and defeated both the Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes in Game 5, often winning each game by two or three goals. Although they eliminated the Blues in six games this year, they did so by recording all one-goal games. Against San Jose, they faced a Game 7 situation for the first time since 2002. Again, they won that matchup with just a one-goal margin.

Los Angeles' offensive isn't posting the numbers it did last year. In fact, they've only recorded 26 goals in 13 games since the regular season came to a close. But these low-scoring games, in a way, could mean trouble for the Blackhawks. Chicago has advantage in terms of offense heading into the Western Conference Finals, but when you have a goaltender like Quick, there's little room leading toward the back of the net. The fact that the Kings are still getting the job done despite their low number of goals could provide an argument that the Blackhawks may be facing an even scarier Quick than the one seen last year.

Quick's posted a 1.50 goals-against average and .948 save percentage since the playoffs kicked off. This year, even more than last, the Kings have their goaltender to thank for where they are. In the upcoming series, the Blackhawks' offense and goaltending will have to be top-notch. Corey Crawford's already proved he can get the job done for Chicago and has posted some big numbers and key saves as well, earning a goals-against average of 1.70.

For the Blackhawks, it's going to come down to special teams and offensive production as they face Quick and big, physical defense in the Kings. The Blackhawks defeated the Kings in two out of their three meetings throughout the regular season, but it's time to wipe that slate clean as these two teams prepare to face off in back-to-back matchups this weekend at the start of the Western Conference Finals.