The Real Championship Round

Anything can happen, and anyone can beat anyone else in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but I have a feeling that the winner of the Stanley Cup in 2014 is being decided in the Western Conference Finals. The series features the 2013 Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks and the 2012 Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles Kings, and the two most recent champs appear to be the two best teams in the NHL once again. With all due respect to the New York Rangers and Montreal Canadiens, it looks like the winner in the East will lose to the winner in the West for the third straight year. Right now the Kings lead the series two games to one, but it just takes one game or one period for the momentum to shift once again. In the meantime, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

The Hawks and the Kings are two of the most physical teams in the NHL, which has been a key to winning the Cup since this decade began. The series has two very good goaltenders in Corey Crawford and Jonathan Quick. Both teams have star players on the blue line in Drew Doughty for Los Angeles and Norris Trophy finalist Duncan Keith for Chicago. Both teams have star forwards who can put the puck in the net. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Patrick Sharp for Chicago, and Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, and Marian Gaborik for Los Angeles.

What really amazes me is the way Jeff Carter has reshaped his image since getting traded to Los Angeles. Carter is big and talented, and was a very productive player when he was in Philadelphia, but he tended to disappear in the playoffs for one reason or another (often injury), and it seemed he was on the verge of becoming another Joe Thornton, who has yet to make it to the Stanley Cup Finals despite putting up Hall of Fame regular season numbers. After getting dealt to the Columbus Blue Jackets, Carter hit the low point of his career. He looked uninterested on a bad terrible team. Carter didn’t even last a full season in Columbus before getting traded to the Kings at the trade deadline. Carter was reunited with his friend and former Philadelphia teammate Mike Richards, and everything clicked. Richards and Carter were a huge part of the run the Kings went on in 2012 that culminated with this. Cater now has the reputation of a tough, gritty playoff performer. Can’t say I saw that one coming.

The Kings were the lowest scoring team during the regular season to make the playoffs. The made the tournament thanks to the stingy goaltending of Jonathan Quick and Darryl Sutter’s unrelenting defensive system. In the playoffs, they have lit it up, and have become a scarily balanced attack that outlasted their California rivals the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks in back-to-back seven game series.

I watched the third period of Game 3 last night. It was the first hockey I had watched since my Boston Bruins didn’t show up for Game 7 against Montreal, but the Red Sox are in the midst of a nine game losing streak, and I went sheepishly crawling back to hockey. These two teams should meet in the playoffs every year because it’s great hockey. While I was impressed with LA’s control of the pace and the puck in that period, I was even more impressed with the Staples Center crowd. They were really into it. I don’t know why I’m still surprised by things like this, but the stereotypes about non-traditional hockey markets still stick in my mind more than 20 years after Wayne Gretzky took the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals. It took time, but LA is really starting to look like a hockey town. It certainly helps that the Lakers were terrible this year, and the Clippers were eliminated last week, but then I saw the tribute Teemu Selanne got from the southern California crowd in his last game, or the introduction the Ducks and Kings got at Dodger Stadium this past winter, and I realize it’s not a fluke. It’s not what you’d see in a rivalry game between Boston and Montreal, or New York and New Jersey, or Edmonton and Calgary, but it’s still really cool.

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