Let’s hear it for Wayne Rutledge and Eddie Joyal, for Bill “Cowboy” Flett and Gord Labossiere, for Bill White and Dale Rolfe, for Howie Hughes and Lowell MacDonald, and for announcer Jiggs McDonald. For Dave Amadio, Terry Sawchuk, Real “Frenchy” Lemieux, too, no longer with us to watch NHL proceedings.
These were all stalwarts and familiar faces of the first group of Los Angeles Kings, 45 seasons ago, in the unforgettable 1967-68 campaign, the year of the first great expansion in the NHL.
And the Kings have never been closer to a Stanley Cup than they are right now.
Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals is Monday Night at Staples Center, hard aside the Harbor Freeway on the south side of downtown Los Angeles, which is ready to erupt at the thought of the Kings finally winning their first Stanley Cup.
The New Jersey Devils still have something to say about all of that, however, and figure to once again offer resolute opposition. Monday’s face-off takes place at 8:05 p.m. (ET), and the Don Best odds screen notes the Kings as prohibitive favorites around Las Vegas, priced anywhere from -155 to -165 on the win. Devils backers can fetch from +140 to +150, depending upon which wagering outlet they choose to do their shopping.
The total is the new playoff norm of 4½ goals, shaded slightly ‘under’ at -110 to -115. Puck Line players tempted to lay the extra goal with the Kings can find prices as high as +210, while taking the extra goal with New Jersey can cost as much as -255 at Las Vegas wagering outlets.
The game will be televised not by big NBC, but instead by the NBC Sports Network (the old Versus), with the pride of Bowling Green, Mike Emrick, plus Ed Olczyk and Pierre McGuire, handling the commentary,
Still, longtime Kings backers are pinching themselves at the thought that they could be a few days away from a Stanley Cup that has seemed a distant dream for much of the franchise’s existence.
Interestingly, the Kings had one of their better chances to play for the Cup right in their first season, in retrospect one of the most fascinating campaigns in the history of any North American professional sport. The NHL, taking a cue from other pro sports that had expanded in the ’60s, decided not only to expand but to double its size for the 1967-68 campaign, from the “original six” teams all of the way to 12.
The Kings, along with the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues and Oakland Seals, would play in their own, brand new Western Division, the winner of whose playoffs would face the “original six” winner from the newly-named Eastern Conference.
It was an era of legendary stars in the NHL, with Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita at the height of their powers in Chicago, Gordie Howe still brutalizing foes in Detroit, Bobby Orr a young and emerging star in Boston, and Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Yvan Cournoyer plus Gump Worsley pacing a powerhouse Montreal team. But the league had yet to become diluted with talent, so when the expansion draft took place before the 1967-68 season, the new teams were able to stock their rosters with some decent NHL-caliber players.
Indeed, competition was better between the “new” West and the “old” East in that first season than it was for the next several years.
The new Kings, owned by the controversial Jack Kent Cooke, played their first regular-season home game in early October at the Long Beach Arena, two months before the Queen Mary would arrive and dock nearby. The Kings alternated games in Long Beach and the downtown L.A. Sports Arena before Cooke’s “Fabulous Forum” in Inglewood opened on December 30 with a nationally-televised game on CBS vs. the Flyers, which Philadelphia won 2-0. The Kings, coached by former Maple Leafs great Red Kelly, were a solid West contender that first season, jockeying with the Flyers for the regular-season division crown before the playoffs began.
The Kings were narrowly denied a division crown but finished a close second to the Flyers and entered the postseason as one of the West favorites. Alas, the North Stars had other ideas, and with Cesare Maniago holding firm in goal, Minnesota took the opening series in seven games, winning the finale at the Forum by a 9-4 score. Eventually, the Blues would see off the North Stars in the West finals before making a fist of it in with the Stanley Cup on the line vs. Montreal; the Blues were within one goal on each occasion but were nonetheless swept in a pulsating four-game series, the last one that featured mask-less goalies on both sides (Montreal’s Worsley and St. Louis’ Glenn Hall).
Since then, rarely have the Kings even dreamed about a Stanley Cup. After the 1967-68 disappointment, a lesser Kings team did make it to the conference finals the next season in 1968-69 before being dominated by the Blues and their vet goalie Jacques Plante, pulled out of retirement, in a four-game sweep. Los Angeles would not return to the postseason for another five years, when defense-minded teams coached by Bob Pulford and featuring goalie Rogie Vachon emerged as a viable contender for a few years. But the Stanley Cup was still an elusive dream.
Years later, the Kings finally thought they had their chance when heisting Wayne Gretzky out of Edmonton, but they could only reach the Cup final once, in the 1992-93 season, a series that recalls bitter memories for Kings fans when Le Habitants coach Jacques Demers pointed out to the refs the illegal tape on King defender Marty McSorley’s stick late in Game 2 and the Kings ready to take a 2-0 lead back to the Forum. The Canadiens converted the power play and proceeded to march on to a 4-1 series win.
The Kings have not had a whiff of the Stanley Cup since, winning just one playoff series over the past 17 years. But they’ve certainly found the scent in this postseason.
Interestingly, along the way in their existence, the Kings have only employed three play-by-play announcers, beginning with the aforementioned Jiggs McDonald, only 29 when taking the job before leaving for expansion Atlanta following the 1971-72 season (Jiggs later served with some distinction as the Islanders’ announcer during their glory years and is deservedly in the Hockey Hall of Fame). The exciting Roy Storey called Kings games for one colorful season in 1972-73 before former U. Of Wisconsin play-by-play man Bob Miller took the job in 1973-74, a gig he still has to this day and one that has also seen him named to the Hockey HOF.
That this season in which the Kings barely scratched their way into the playoffs as the eighth and final seed in the West, a campaign in which they switched coached prior to New Year’s when Terry Murray was dismissed and Darryl Sutter hired, hardly figured to be the year in which the Stanley Cup would land in L.A., but the Kings are just two wins away from making it happen.
The Kings are a well-publicized 10-0 on the road in these playoffs and 14-2 overall, within touching distance of the 16-2 record set by Gretzky’s 1987-88 Edmonton Oilers as the best playoff mark since the postseason expanded to seven-game series for each of the four rounds.
For the Kings, GK Jonathan Quick, zeroing in on Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies, has been impenetrable, his 1.44 playoff GPA and .947 save percentage stonewalling everyone, including the flustered Devils in the first two games of this series.
Thanks to Quick, the Kings can forecheck with abandon, sending multiples of players into the opposing zone and not concerning themselves too much with odd-man rushes the other way, thanks to Quick’s guard-like presence in front of the gate. Los Angles has also outscored the opposition 45-24 in these playoffs and hasn’t even fallen behind in eight of its last ten games, the only exceptions being Games 4 and 5 in the last round vs. the Coyotes.
But this series has been anything but easy for the Kings, with both of the first two games in Newark sitting on a razor’s edge and into overtime, level 1-1 after regulation. On both occasions the Devils missed gilt-edged chances to win the game in the late going, especially in Game 2, when after a disastrous Dustin Brown giveaway, Ilya Kovalchuk beat Quick with 18 seconds to play, only for the crossbar to deny him and the Devils a win. In overtime, the Kings finally pulled out the game on ex-Flyer and Blue Jacket Jeff Carter’s goal.
Before making Stanley Cup parade reservations, however, consider that the Kings have not been dominating lately, winning three overtime games in row (including the series-clincher vs. the Coyotes), and shut out by Phoenix in the game prior to that streak. Both of their playoff losses have also come at home at Staples Center, where they are a more-modest 4-2 in the postseason.
The Devils have been able to limit the Kings’ shots, tested Quick, and bottled up L.A. with their own brand of effective forechecking which has limited the Kings to one regulation goal in each of the first two games. Los Angeles has also not been able to implement it usual smooth-puck passing game. New Jersey just hasn’t been able to solve Quick.
Note, too, that Pete DeBoer’s side also trailed in each of its preceding three series in this postseason, and rallied to win them all. The Devils have also won four of their last five, and five of their last seven, playoff games on the road. They’ve also bounced back from defeats with wins after four of their last five playoff losses.
New Jersey, however, has not had to rally from a two-game deficit in these playoffs. The Devils can take some solace in the fact that Boston also rallied from 0-2 vs. Vancouver to win last year’s Stanley Cup, although the Bruins were home for Games 3 and 4; New Jersey has to trek across the continent to the hot-house atmosphere of Staples Center for the next two games.
DeBoer, who tried to shake up his lines in the third period of Game 2 to put more pressure on Quick, partially succeeded, but the Devils must reignite their dormant power play, and in a hurry, to get back into this series. Key components Kovalchuk, Zach Parise, and Travis Zajac are all pointless thus far in this series. DeBoer still has the luxury of four productive lines, although the Devils have been too guilty of making the extra pass (or two or three) in the attack end. It’s worth noting that both goals scored by the Devils in this series came from shots sent into a crowd in front of Quick and deflected home.
Expect DeBoer to insist that his troops put the puck on Quick whenever possible to create havoc and chances at deflections and rebounds, none of which can happen when passing the puck around by the blue line.
Still, there has been almost nothing separating these teams in the first two games of this series. The odds are long, but the Devils hardly look like a team that is out of this matchup, and the Game 3 price looks like an overlay on the Kings. We would be surprised if this series ends in a sweep and doesn’t at least get back to the Pru Center for a Game 5 later this week.