Wednesday, June 13, 2012

2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Kings Among Men

Finally! I got a series completely right. I predicted the Kings in 6, and that's what happened. It didn't quite happen the way I thought it might, and it took some heroics from Martin Brodeur to get there, but the Kings did it. Every Cup-winning team is special in its own way, but I don't think we'll see a run like this for awhile. Thoughh it's not unusual to see a team dominate through the playoffs and win the Cup losing only six games - the 2007 Ducks and 2008 Red Wings lost five and six games, respectively - it's very unusual that a team that is so dominant was not the (or at least a) Cup favourite at the beginning of the playoffs. The Kings were a popular dark horse pick to start the season, but they had fallen so far out of favour that they were barely regarded by many pundits as they entered the playoffs as an 8-seed. Their systematic evisceration and emasculation of the Canucks suddenly propelled them to "favourite" status at the beginning of round 2, and they never looked back. The Kings not only beat the top three seeds in the West in the first three rounds, but they beat them from the lowest possible seeding - the only 8-seed to win a title in any sport - and they won ten road games in a row to do it. This was a run on par with the 1993 Canadiens in terms of unexpected dominance and lasting resonance; it is no coincidence that these Kings have redeemed the 1993 "curse of McSorley" and leave the St. Louis Blues as the only remaining 1967 expansion team that has not won the Cup.
The connection to the 1993 playoffs has been somewhat uncanny: an unexpected team rides a hot goaltender and features gritty Canadian and American team players, a dominant defensive scheme, and a long-suffering coach looking for that elusive Cup, creating an unbelievable 10-game streak as they face unexpected foes who upset favoured opponents in both the Conference Finals and Cup Finals. Those playoffs - which I would argue are still among the best I've ever watched - occurred when I was 10 years old, and formed my knowledge and love of the game. I could have been a Kings fan - I had, after all, cheered for the Oilers in my formative years when they dominated in the 80s - but I started as a Canadiens fan; they did, after all, win the Cup, and they featured a number of players I really liked at the time. I even had my parents buy me a championship hat; it was (mercifully) stolen soon thereafter, and I never looked back to being a Habs fan. The Leafs ripped off 10 wins in a row to start the next season, and I switched my (then fickle) allegiance to the team it has rested with since: the Maple Leafs.
Bill Simmons expressed it as well as I've ever read anyone write it in his column "The Consequences of Caring" - a must-read if you have any doubt about why sports matters or what it does to us. It has stuck with me that I could have just as easily started cheering for any other team, and so I have a deep appreciation for what true Kings fans are experiencing right now. I understand that pain as acutely as any fan of my age could. After all, it's a short list of twelve teams that have not won the Cup since the Leafs won in 1967, and after the Kings' victory, it's one team shorter. There are six teams that have made it to the Finals at least once - the Panthers, Senators, Sabres, Capitals, Blues, and Canucks - and six teams that have never made an appearance in the Finals: the Jets/Coyotes (in 32 years), the Sharks (in two decades), and the still-young Wild, Blue Jackets, Thrashers/Jets, and Predators. Any time one of those teams has a chance for success, the part of me that suffers with them wants to see them break out - though I do take considerable glee in the failures of the Senators and Canucks (as their fans do in watching the Leafs fal short each year). Then again, if the Kings can surprise everyone and go from an 8th-seeded team to one of the most dominant Cup runs ever in a couple of months, who's to say that the Leafs can't overcome the curse of Kerry Fraser and finally even just make the Stanley Cup Finals. There's always next year for us Leaf fans; for Kings fans, there will always be this year, 2012.

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