Monday night, the Los Angeles Kings finished off one of the most improbable, spectacular Stanley Cup runs in history – and did so emphatically, leaving no doubt in a 6-1 win. The Kings went 16-4 in the postseason and knocked off the top three seeds in the West. Only one team has won the Cup in fewer games under the current system: the Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers in 1988. No team has ever knocked off the top three seeds in their conference en route to the Cup, and no team has ever taken 3-0 leads in every series. In short, it was the most dominant performance of the modern era and the Kings deserve all the accolades they are receiving. How did they go from an offensively inept team buried in the standings in late February to this juggernaut?
The trade for Jeff Carter was a big factor – he didn’t put up huge numbers, but he diversified the offense and forced opponents to key on him a little more – and therefore key on Anze Kopitar’s line a little less. Reuniting him with old teammate Mike Richards seemed to help both players as well.
Captain Dustin Brown was having a miserable year, with only 29 points in his first 59 games – but again, the late-season roster changes seemed to invigorate him, as he collected 25 points in his last 23 games and then scored 20 postseason points, tying him for the overall playoff lead with Kopitar (both players had eight goals, 12 assists, and were each +16).
The Kings fired Coach Terry Murray after 29 games, and it took awhile for the team to figure out new coach Darryl Sutter’s system – but Sutter’s regular season record was 25-13-11, 13-5-3 in the team’s last 21 games. Clearly Sutter made a difference.
Finally, goalie Jonathan Quick followed up an amazing regular season (35 wins, 1.95 goals against, .929 save%) with an historic postseason (16-4, 1.41 goals against, .946 save%). According to NHL.com, Quick set modern-era playoff records for lowest goals-against average, highest save%, and most consecutive road playoff wins (10). He allowed two goals or fewer in 18 of 20 games, and allowed only 29 total goals in 20 games (Marc-Andre Fleury allowed 26 in six games)! Quick was already known around the league as a top goalie, but this performance, and the richly-deserved Conn Smythe trophy (awarded to the playoff MVP), should serve to elevate his status with even the casual fan. Quick is on the short list of best goalies in the league and gave the Kings a chance to win every single night.
Normally, I talk about how luck plays a big role in the Stanley Cup playoffs and how every Cup winner has to overcome some playoff adversity en route to the title. The Kings are the exception to that rule; they encountered virtually no adversity in the postseason; when you lead every series 3-0, that’s about as easy a road as a team will ever face. The Kings faced plenty of adversity during the season and certainly, like most Cup winners, they peaked at exactly the right time. It’s hard to say if L.A. will be able to repeat next year – history, and the odds, are against it – but whatever the future holds, this Kings team will always be remembered as one of the most dominant playoff teams in history.
On to baseball one more time – we looked at the surprising and disappointing teams and players over the past month, but during that time the Pirates have once again surprised the baseball world (and me), climbing into a first-place tie as of Tuesday morning. Pittsburgh has the worst offense in MLB, so this has all been about the pitching – currently they are third in the majors in ERA, and they are 31-12 when they manage even two runs (22-3 if they score four or more). Last year the pitching got off to a strong start but faded badly – however, I think this year’s unit will fare much better, for the following reasons:
-Burnett+Bedard > Maholm+Morton. A.J. Burnett has been amazing in all but one start so far, and Erik Bedard has provided solid outings most starts, with plenty of strikeouts. Maholm and Morton are sinkerballers who are overly reliant on defense – Pittsburgh is average at best defensively. High strikeout rates are a good indicator of sustainable success, and both Burnett and Bedard are whiffing plenty of batters.
-Depth. Brad Lincoln has been very good so far this season, allowing the team to endure injuries to Morton and Jeff Karstens without missing a beat. In addition, Jeff Locke and Rudy Owens are dominating AAA, giving the Pirates eight or nine viable starting options – and an opportunity to trade from strength if they so choose.
-Bullpen. For all of GM Neal Huntington’s failures, he has consistently built solid bullpens through outside acquisitions. Pittsburgh has the lowest bullpen ERA in baseball, and the primary contributors were all acquired via trade or free agency. They throw very hard and strike plenty of batters out – they will regress some, but this bullpen is legitimately good.
So the pitching looks to be solid, what about the offense? It’s clear that the Pirates need to score more runs to keep up their recent pace, and while Andrew McCutchen is having an MVP-caliber season (.325, 11 HR, 11 SB), no one else is hitting up to expectations. The good news is that we can expect several batters to improve by year’s end – Clint Barmes, Neil Walker, Garret Jones, and even Pedro Alvarez all have shown the ability to hit better than this.
With just a little offensive improvement, the Pirates look to be in the mix all year long in the weak NL Central – enjoy, Pirate fans!
The Eye will be taking a short summer hiatus, but the column will return in early July.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.