Tuesday, June 12, 2012
The Kings’ Cup
Throughout the 2011-12 regular season, the Los Angeles Kings did one thing very well: play defense. Their 2.1 goals against was second in the NHL and Jonathan Quick, the team's main goal tender, managed 1.95 goals allowed per game, second best in the NHL. Despite that impressive statistic, Quick only managed to go 35-21-13, and while the NHL awards points for losing in overtime or a shoot out, the reality is that Quick won 35 games and lost 34 games.
That's not exactly a season's resume that I'd put a ton of confidence in heading into the playoffs. But statistics never lie and Quick's 1.95 goals against in the regular season foreshadowed the amazing playoff run the Kings were able to make.
The struggle for the Kings was the fact that their offense was as bad as their defense was good. Scoring 2.3 points per game, the Kings offense was the second worst in the NHL. If the Dallas Stars hadn't been terrible in the last 12 games — going 3-9-0 — the Kings might have not even made the playoffs.
But they did make the playoffs ... and they won the Stanley Cup ... how did this happen?
As the eighth seed in the Western Conference, the Kings had the privilege of playing the best team in the NHL's regular season and the defending Western Conference champions from 2010-11: the Vancouver Canucks. Fortunately for the Kings, the curse of the President's Cup continued as the Canucks only managed to win one playoff game against the Kings.
As a reward for beating the best team in the NHL, the underdog Kings were rewarded by facing the second best team in the Western Conference — a team many considered more dangerous than the Canucks in the St. Louis Blues — whose 1.9 goals against was the only team better than the Kings in the regular season. But in the playoffs, Jonathan Quick outplayed the Blues' Brian Elliott and the Kings offense woke up after a winter of hibernation — scoring 15 goals on Elliott in a four-game sweep of the Blues.
And so after knocking off numbers one and two in the West, the Kings met the Phoenix Coyotes — the third best team in the Western Conference. Quick didn't let up, helping the Kings knock off the Coyotes in five games and giving the Kings a berth into the Stanley Cup Finals.
Heading into New Jersey for the first two games of the series, the Kings managed to win both of the first two games in overtime, both by the score of 2-1. Then they headed home, up 2-0 and Quick shutout the Devils pushing them to the brink, forcing the Devils to win on the road to stay alive in game four. The Devils managed to prolong the series and the series went back to New Jersey for game five, a game that proved to be the only road game in the entirety of the playoffs that the Kings lost.
In the regular season, the Kings went 18-13-10 on the road. In the playoffs, they went 10-1 on the road. That road domination, and the domination of the Kings in general can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Conn Smythe winner Jonathan Quick who only allowed 8 goals in the six-game series with the Devils. In the playoffs as a whole, Quick allowed 28 goals in 20 games.
Quick played better in the playoffs than he did in the regular season, but where did the offense come from for the Kings? Anze Kopitar was an obvious leader with 8 goals and 12 assists in 20 playoff games, but that's not terribly different than the regular season Kopitar had, recording 76 points in 82 games.
No seriously, how did this happen? Sure the Kings had better numbers on offense in the playoffs, but they weren't staggeringly better.
The lowest seed to ever win the Stanley Cup had been fifth and the last time a team won the Stanley Cup from the fifth seed in their conference was 1995 when the New Jersey Devils won hockey's top prize after a severely shortened season due to a lockout. There had never been a six-, seven-, or eight-seed win the Cup — until Monday night.
The question I've (obviously) been asking is: how did this happen? How did a team who could have easily missed the playoffs not only win the Stanley Cup, but dominate on the way, playing worse opponents every round on the way to taking turns getting to hoist the cup of cups?
But maybe the more applicable question is: does this change everything?
Low seeds have had decent success in the playoffs in recent years. In 2010, the seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Chicago Blackhawks. In the same season, the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens were in the Eastern Conference Finals and lost to the Flyers.
Are we seeing a trend where higher seeds have absolutely no advantage over lower seeded teams? It was rather obvious from the playoffs of 2012 that home ice advantage doesn't exist at all. Should the NHL be looking at giving a further advantage to high seeded teams so they can actually be rewarded for their far superior seasons? Should the NHL be thinking about reducing the number of the teams who make the playoffs so it isn't more than 50% of the league?
In my opinion, this doesn't change anything, there is a trend to higher seeds having less of an advantage, and the NHL doesn't need to do anything about it.
How did the Kings win the Stanley Cup? Because they played better defense and had better goaltending than every team in the NHL in the playoffs. That's it. That's nothing new. "Defense wins championships" is true in many sports. The Kings didn't invent some new formula to make a run in the playoffs. They simply upped their game at the right time and had a great goaltender who played better than great in the playoffs. Not much mystery there.
The only advantage that top seeds really need is that they won more games in the regular season so they should be better than the low-seeded teams. I've thought about the possibility of giving more home games to the higher-seeded teams, but after 2012's playoffs, I don't even know if that would be an advantage or a disadvantage. Perhaps a safer advantage would be to give the higher-seeded team the chance to choose which games are played at home and which games are played away. It would be a logistical nightmare perhaps, but I think if there were three options (Home, Home, Away, Away Away, Home, Home OR Home, Home, Away, Away, Home, Away, Home OR Away Away, Home, Home, Away, Home, Home) maybe teams could decide what's best for their own rhythm.
But as far as reduction, I don't think there's any way to do reduction of the NHL playoffs without major difficulties. Only two possibilities exist in my mind. The first is to switch to the new MLB system of a one game playoff for non division winners and I think that sort of system — changing from 16 teams to 10 teams — would be too much of a reduction for the NHL. The second possibility would be to use something similar to NFL system of giving byes to the top two seeds in each conference and having 12 teams in the playoffs. It could possibly work if the opening series was only three games, but it would have to be played in five days or the rest period would be too long for teams with byes.
The only reason I see for reduction is the fact that the playoffs ended this year on June 11. Most kids in the United States are out of school for summer break. Hockey is played on ice and you know, is a winter sport. I just wish it would end in April.
In the end, the NHL playoffs are working just fine. It was a fantastic year for the NHL playoffs. Lots of exciting series, many upsets, numerous overtime games, and an unlikely champion. There's no need to fix what isn't broken.